Why LAUSD's projected graduation rate shot up 9 points in 1 month

File photo: At the end of the fall semester, barely half of Los Angeles Unified high school seniors were on-track for graduation. By Feb. 18, that number had jumped to 63 percent.
File photo: At the end of the fall semester, barely half of Los Angeles Unified high school seniors were on-track for graduation. By Feb. 18, that number had jumped to 63 percent.
Crystal Marie Lopez/Flickr

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When second semester classes came to an end in January, barely half of the 32,000 seniors in Los Angeles Unified high schools were on-track to graduate at the end of this year.

Now, six weeks later, 63 percent of L.A. Unified seniors are on-track to earn diplomas, a district memo shows — and another 17 percent are only one or two courses behind.

But what looked like a sudden shift in the numbers is the result of what district officials described Tuesday as part of a year-long, district-wide effort to ensure off-track high school seniors earn the credits they need to get their diplomas.

Specifically, the updated numbers include for the first time students who made up credits during the fall semester. Some even finished their credit recovery work over winter break, said L.A. Unified Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson.

But only 43 percent of this year’s seniors are currently on-track to graduate with a C average or better — a bar students must clear to be eligible for admission at University of California or California State University campuses.

Superintendent Michelle King has set a goal that 100 percent of L.A. Unified students graduate on-time, but efforts to increase the number predate her time in the district’s top job.

Last August, the district “decentralized” its efforts to ensure all students met all of the so-called “A-G requirements,” giving local school leaders the autonomy to determine how to meet students’ credit recovery needs in their differing neighborhoods, Gipson said.

And starting in mid-January, counselors began sending certified letters to parents of every student in the Class of 2016 who was off-track.

"It’s evident we’re changing the way we work,” L.A. Unified school board president Steve Zimmer during a Tuesday meeting.

Preliminary figures showed 74 percent of L.A. Unified's Class of 2015 graduated on-time. On Tuesday, district officials and school board members expressed cautious optimism that the Class of 2016 might top that mark, but Gipson did not want to make any predictions.

“Credit recovery’s like the emergency room and we want to attend to that and make sure [the student is] healthy and well,” Gipson said. “It’s about the health of our education system and making sure we have rigorous instruction, quality instruction.”

Students who’ve fallen behind are recovering lost credits in a range of ways, district officials said Tuesday. Since August 2015, L.A. Unified students had enrolled in more than 11,900 courses through an online credit recovery program called Edgenuity; they'd completed more than 2,900 semester courses.

But the district also offers more traditional face-to-face instruction that helps students make up those credits. Gipson said her team is still sorting through the data to determine the breakdown of how many students are enrolled in online, classroom-based and blended credit recovery courses respectively.

Students who end up in credit recovery programs often are among a school’s most vulnerable or at-risk, said Jessica Heppen, who directs research on teaching and learning technology at the American Institutes for Research.

Heppen conducted a study on ninth graders in Chicago who had failed a first semester Algebra course, comparing how these students fared in face-to-face and online credit recovery courses. The results of her study were mixed; while students in face-to-face courses recovered the credits at somewhat higher rates, students in online courses appeared to have taken away somewhat more content knowledge.

But either way, "we don’t have a lot of evidence that they really had a launching point in order to be more successful in mathematics going forward,” said Heppen.

While expressing optimism at the numbers district officials discussed Tuesday, L.A. Unified board member Monica Ratliff closed Tuesday’s session by raising similar questions:

“Are these credit recovery courses really rigorous A-G courses? How do we know? What’s our evidence?"