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California high school graduation rate creeps up to 78 percent

California's high school graduation rate is up to 78 percent.
California's high school graduation rate is up to 78 percent.
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California education officials announced Tuesday that despite years of budget cuts to schools, the state’s high school graduation rate inched up last year.

"We have positive momentum continuing to build. Graduation rates climbed again last year," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. "We’re now at 78.5 percent of high school students graduating with their class, which is an increase of 1.4 percentage points." 

He said the new numbers are significant because a three-year-old data-tracking system gives educators a more accurate count of who’s dropping out.

Graduation rates in Southern California run the gamut — from San Marino Unified’s stellar 98.9 percent graduation rate to L.A. Unified’s 66 percent rate to Compton Unified’s 57 percent, one of the lowest.

State education officials called attention to the graduation rate for African-Americans, which jumped up 3 percent last year. But it’s still about 13 percentage points below average.

RELATED: Search for your school district's dropout rate

"There’s no doubt that African-American young people still are lagging behind their peers in their graduation rate," said Pamela Short Powell, president of the California Association of African American Superintendents. But she was heartened by the improvement.

"It’s refreshing to know, though, that we are making the gains that we need to make," she added.

She said to turn things around, teachers and principals need to focus on keeping students from missing school, help them improve reading skills and intervene when they start to fall behind.

The improved graduation rates come despite significant budget cuts to schools, Torlakson said during a telephone conference call announcing the new graduation data Tuesday morning. Policymakers should increase funding to schools, he added.

"Of course the state superintendent wants more money," said USC education researcher Morgan Polikoff. "California does not spend a lot of money on schools relative to other states."

According to a study by Education Week, California’s spends about $8,500 per student, behind only Nevada and Utah. The national average is nearly $12,000 per student.

"On the other hand," Polikoff added, "pouring money into the system and not being smart about how you spend it is not a real good way to go."

Polikoff said that to improve graduation rates officials should target spending at groups and interventions that are showing results.

California’s overall improvement mirrors a national trend fueled by the use of testing, according to Russ Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project. He said the economy is also playing a role.

"If the economy were better they might be able to find jobs and it might actually induce a few students to leave school when they might otherwise not," he said, "but with the economy bad then they don’t have enough alternatives there."

Rumberger said there’s a more important indicator of students’ education that graduation rates don’t give us: how well graduates are prepared for college or a job.

How's your school district doing? KPCC has put together a chart of every Southern California school district's dropout rate, broken down by race.