California graduation rates up again, especially for migrant students and English learners

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California high school students graduated at a rate of 82.3 percent in 2015, up 1.3 percentage points from the year before. Those numbers represent a slightly larger increase than the state has seen in recent years and bring graduation rates to another record high, according to state Department of Education data released Tuesday. 

"This is encouraging news any way you look at it, especially since the increase is occurring as we are introducing much more rigorous academic standards," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said in a written statement.

While the statewide increase is not a huge jump, the increase for student populations that have historically struggled in schools was significantly higher than the statewide rate.

The biggest gains were posted by migrant students and those learning English. Rates for English language learners jumped four percentage points, to 69.4 percent, while 80.7 percent of migrant students graduated, 4.4 percentage points higher than the year before. 

The graduation increase for English learners is encouraging for educators because there are so many students with this designation in California schools. About a quarter of the state’s 6.2 million kids in public schools speak a foreign language at home and receive targeted instruction to improve their English skills.

The jumps in the graduation rate for black and Latino students were also higher than the statewide increase, though gaps still remain.

Nearly 71 percent of black students graduated statewide, for example – much lower than the statewide rate but 2.6 percentage points higher than in 2014. The rate for Latino students increased 1.9 percentage points, to 78.5 percent of students graduating.

"Statewide, our students are benefiting from the additional revenues flowing into our schools. We are bringing back relevant and engaging classes in science, civics, arts, and Career Technical Education that were slashed during the Great Recession," Torlakson said.

"It’s still an improvement nonetheless so we should be kind of celebrating but be cautious," said Russell Rumberger, the head of the California Dropout Research Project at U.C. Santa Barbara.

Rates are going up, he said, because schools and parents are getting the message that a high school diploma is critical and are pushing kids more.

However, he warns that the higher graduation rate may not mean that there’s more learning going on. Many credit recovery programs that push kids to finish classes they’ve failed, he said, are less rigorous than those during the school year. 

School district officials agreed with state officials that new programs are helping more students earn a diploma.

“I am very proud of the work we are doing – not only in raising our graduation rates, but in preparing our graduates to enter college or the workforce,” said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Michelle King. 

In L.A. Unified graduation rates rose 2 percentage points, to 72.2 percent, from the previous year. 

What's working?

"There’s a lot more attention to catching kids earlier before they fail, [to understand] what are some of the issues going on at home," said Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Michael Matsuda.

Nearly 15 percent of his school district's students are categorized as homeless, he said, so the school district has added social worker interns at every school site and a paid staffer that can help students and their families find non-school services such as affordable health care or housing.

The school district has also been been creating programs to engage students, such as civics classes, and internship opportunities with companies in the Anaheim area.

The graduation rate for the Anaheim high school district rose 2.5 percentage points to 87.3 percent. The school districts saw a big graduation rate increase among students who speak a foreign language at home. The graduation rate among English learner students rose 5.2 percentage points to 76 percent.

A few statewide changes may be helping English learners.

Schools are putting a greater emphasis on teaching English learners vocabulary and literacy as the students are learning academic subjects, not separately.

"[English learner students] see a real life connection between those formerly isolated concepts and words that seemed like they made absolutely no sense to them to their real life," said USC education researcher Gisele Ragusa.

High schools are creating programs for English learners, and the rest of the student population, that challenge students to solve problems in their communities by using academic subjects such as math and science. Ragusa said those programs are likely also helping the student population at large graduate at higher rates than before.

There is one graduation gap that remains unchanged. Statewide, girls are much more likely to earn their high school diploma than boys. This gender graduation gap was 7.5 percent points for the second year in a row. Statewide 86.1 percent of female students graduated while 78.6 percent of male students graduated.

This story has been updated.