High school graduation rates in California climbed for the seventh year in a row, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, announced Tuesday. The class of 2016 had a record-high graduation rate of 83.2 percent, with significant gains for student populations that have historically lagged behind.
"Graduation rates have gone up seven years in a row," Torlakson said in a written statement, "reflecting renewed optimism and increased investments in our schools that have helped reduce class sizes; bring back classes in music, theater, art, dance, and science; and expand career technical education programs that engage our students with hands-on, minds-on learning."
The uptick this year is incremental – only a .9 percentage point increase from the previous school year – but there been a major shift since 2010. In the seven years of consecutive increases, the graduation rate has increased by 8.5 points.
"It has been quite an impressive increase," said Estela Zarate, professor in the department of educational leadership at California State University Fullerton. "Particularly if we look at English learners, Hispanic Latinos, and African American students."
The achievement gap between Asian and white students on the one hand and African American and Latino students on the other has narrowed. The graduation rate for Latino students reached a record high of 80 percent, up 1.5 points from the year before and an 11.9 percentage point increase since 2010. For black students, the rate is 72.6 percent, up 1.8 percentage points from last year and 12.1 percentage points since 2010.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District, rates went up 4.8 percentage points to 76.99, from a 72.23 percent rate in the 2014-15 school year. Graduation rates increased by 6.3 percentage points for English language learners and by 6.2 percentage points for African American students.
"If there’s a secret, the secret is out and it’s personalization," said Frances Gipson, chief academic officer for LAUSD.
Gipson credits the introduction of individualized graduation plans for students starting at the middle school and graduation dashboard to keep students on track.
But observers and experts cautioned that increases in graduation rates mean little if students aren't graduating ready for future opportunities.
"Yes, we should absolutely celebrate progress, but we have to go further to ensure that all of our students are receiving the opportunity to graduate college with options for a rewarding career," said Ryan Smith, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based non-profit.
"A high school diploma should mean that you are being given every opportunity to find a career of your choice and an opportunity to go to the college of your choice," he said.
Many disparities still persist. Only 50.8 percent of foster youth, for example, graduate on time.
And some researchers are skeptical of the numbers. Morgan Polikoff, associate professor in the education school at the University of Southern California, would like to be able to examine what proportion of the graduates have actually passed the college prep courses, known as A-G classes, and how many relied on less rigorous credit recovery programs.
"That would give you a better handle on the likelihood that these changes and these gap closings are real or fictitious," Polikoff said.
"We don’t want a bunch of students graduating high school who are not qualified and really shouldn’t be graduating high school," said Polikoff, "because that would probably water down the value of that degree."
And as a college diploma becomes even more necessary for most career paths, Zarate notes that the high school diploma no longer holds the same significance.
"I question what its impact will be in terms of achieving economic or social equity given that the goal post has shifted."