Education

California graduation rates improve, but show 'unacceptable' gaps

Latest figures from the California Department of Education show high school students graduated at a statewide rate that set a record, but disparities among racial groups persist.
Latest figures from the California Department of Education show high school students graduated at a statewide rate that set a record, but disparities among racial groups persist.
Crystal Marie Lopez/Flickr

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California's Class of 2014 graduated from high school at a rate of 80.8 percent, slightly up from the previous year to hit a record high, according to state Department of Education data released on Tuesday.

But wide gaps persist among racial groups, with the statewide graduation rate for African-American students hovering stubbornly at about 68 percent and showing no improvement year-over-year.

For Los Angeles Unified, the story was similar: graduation rate stood at 70.4 for 2013-2014, up from 68.1 in the prior year. Still, the graduation rate for African-Americans came in below that of other groups at 66.3 percent. 

State and district officials commented positively on the latest figures, despite the uneven picture of achievement.

“This is more evidence that the dramatic changes taking place in our schools are gradually helping to improve teaching and learning in every classroom,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement.

“We have raised academic standards, started online testing, given local districts more flexibility in spending, and provided more resources to students who need it most.”

However, tying a small increase to changes in the classroom is a stretch, according to one researcher.

“Generally, year-to-year changes in graduation rates, unless they’re dramatic, are not really all that easy to interpret,” said Maria Estela Zarate, a Cal State Fullerton education researcher.

One such jump occurred in the 2010-2011 school year, when the statewide graduation rate rose 2.4 percentage points. Zarate said that was likely due to high school teachers and students mastering the required California High School Exit Exam

When improvement is flat or incremental, as reflected this year, it sends up a red flag, Zarate said.

“If we see a plateau, it means we need to be more creative or have more targeted interventions,” she said. In other words, teachers need to do a better job finding out how to help each student improve and then progress to graduation.

As in prior years, this year’s data highlights continuing struggles among African-American and Hispanic students who, depending on their school district, continue to graduate at rates 10 and 20 percentage points lower than their white and Asian classmates.

For the statewide Class of 2014, 92.3 percent of Asian students graduated; 87.4 percent of white students graduated; 76.4 percent of Hispanic students graduated, and 68.1 percent of African-American students graduated.

“From a social justice perspective, this is not acceptable," said Andrea Venezia, Cal State Sacramento education professor. But while the graduation rates for some groups may be low, she said it is encouraging that the trendline is up for some groups.

Hispanics, for example, increased their statewide graduation rate from last year when 67.4 made it out of high school. Within LAUSD, they also recorded improvements, graduating at a rate of 69.4 percent in 2013-2014 compared to 67.4 percent a year earlier. 

The district's overall graduation rate of 70.4 percent in 2013-2014, when Superintendent John Deasy was in charge, also increased from the previous year, although it still remains 10 percentage points lower than the state's rate.

LAUSD's current superintendent, Ramon Cortines, saw the latest figures in a positive light: “These increases remind us of the good things happening in our schools every day,” he said in a written statement.

Zarate is worried about graduation rates in the years ahead.

She said teachers and administrators are having a tough time fully adapting to the new Common Core learning standards. That challenge could make it harder for students to learn the new concepts  like critical thinking and problem-solving and complete the school work needed to graduate.