California Graduation Rates Lag Behind Other States

California ranks dead last in the nation on high school graduation rates, according to a recently released ranking from the website, a website that helps people choose where to live based on local housing and job markets, education and other quality-of-life measurements.

Preliminary LAUSD graduation rates for 2017

Preliminary LAUSD graduation rates for 2017

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey for 2016, California graduation rates languish at 82.4 percent, 10 percentage points lower than top-ranked states Wyoming (93.2 percent), Alaska (93.1 percent) and Minnesota (92.9 percent).  

U.S. News & World Report also recently published a state-by-state high school graduation rate comparison based on information provided by officials in each state about the class of 2016. While U.S. News arrived at an even lower average graduation rate for California (77.4 percent), it had about 10 states trailing the Golden State. In that ranking, New Mexico placed last with a 67.9 percent graduation rate.  

Whether California is truly last or simply in the bottom of the pack, there is clearly room for improvement. And it’s not just the numbers talking. Consider the results from a recent survey by San Francisco-based non-profit YouthTruth. According to its Learning from Student Voice: California survey, only 42 percent of California’s public high school students agree with the statement: “What I learn in class helps outside of school." Just over half, or 52 percent, say, “My school has helped me understand the steps I need to take in order to apply to college.” And a mere 37 percent rate their school culture positively.

Among the survey’s conclusions: “Students need a seat at the table as co-creators of their educational experience. Asking for — and listening to — student feedback provides school, district, and state leaders, as well as education funders, with crucial insights about what’s working and what’s not.”

Locally, the results are mixed for LAUSD’s graduation rates. Preliminary figures shared at the June 19 Board meeting indicate the graduation rate for the class of 2017 four-year cohort—these are the students who completed all four years of high school at district schools—went up three percentage points from the prior year, from 77 percent to 80 percent.

While LAUSD graduation rates are improving, nearly half are graduating ineligible to attend a 4-year university.

While LAUSD graduation rates are improving, nearly half are graduating ineligible to attend a 4-year university.

Far more students also completed their A-G college prep class requirements with a D or better, putting them on the path toward graduation. Looking at LAUSD’s senior class only, the percentage of kids graduating with a D or better in A-G classes grew from 54 percent in 2016 to 59 percent in 2017 to 72 percent in 2018. Only a C or above, however, makes those graduates eligible to attend Cal State or UC colleges, and far fewer students hit that mark. For the class of 2018, for example, 85 percent of students completed A-G with a D or better, while only 53 percent attained a C or better.

Student fails are also down, though. In Algebra 1, for example, the A-G course with the highest failure rate, 58 percent of students in the 2015-2016 school year received an F. The following school year, that number decreased to 45 percent. Of course, a fail rate near 50 percent is hardly anything to cheer. Still, improvement is improvement.  

The news, however, was tempered by the fact that the state’s updated metric for calculating graduation rates will very likely mean that when official numbers are released, LAUSD’s graduation rate will, in fact, dip two or three percentage points.

Among the reasons for this, students who received diplomas through adult education schools will no longer be included in high school graduation rates. English learners and students with disabilities who are entitled and encouraged to do a fifth year of high school are no longer counted as graduates, either.

Board Member Richard Vladovic (BD7) worried how parents might receive news of the graduation rate decrease, especially without context. “Many times, people read the news and then they get up in the morning and put on their shoes and say, 'I’m going to take my kid to another school district.’” He and other board members insisted LAUSD get an explanation from the state for the changes, which he suggested were based on politics and not education.

“We are one of the few K-12s that still has adult school,” said Board President Monica Garcia (BD2). “And maybe we need an exemption… Where the district has to be really instructive to the state of California, let’s not work against our kids. It’s bad enough that we are at the bottom of investment. Let us not make it harder…I don’t want to just look good on the graduation. We’re not just trying to put forward numbers…We don’t want to water down anything. We just want more opportunity to create the pathway that perhaps the state is not committed to.”

 --  Leslee Komaiko