Should We Trust California’s Published High School Graduation Rates?

Last week, a report in the Los Angeles Times was published suggesting that data from the California Department of Education on its high school graduation rates may be inaccurate. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Inspector General released a report for the 2013-2014 academic year and found that there was a lack in self reporting by individual school districts for California. The federal auditors criticized the state’s internal control and found that the way California calculates graduation rates is not in alignment with federal requirements.

There are a few reasons why this may be the case. California counts as high school graduates students who may leave a regular high school to complete an equivalency program at adult school as a graduation. Additionally, high school students who transfer to one of the state’s community colleges may not be counted as a high school graduate, even if those students had earned a certificate or even an associate’s degree or have taken courses to complete their high school requirements at the local community college. California community colleges do let students take courses that can be counted toward high school graduation, and they also allow dual enrollment for high school students. Sometimes teen parents or ‘emancipated minors’ complete high school at such programs.

The federal Department of Education is asserting that California officials counted students who “transferred to programs that did not lead to a regular high school diploma.” The discrepancy in the data could be because there is a lack of coordination between California high schools and community colleges to get a more accurate count. This is an issue that needs to be addressed so that policymakers know who is graduating, who isn’t, and how they can better meet the needs of California students.

Another issue raised in the federal report was that local school districts did “not have a formal process” for verifying accuracy and that officials at the state level were not checking to see if local districts had data management teams. The feds also claimed that some students who were counted as graduates hadn’t met the requirements for graduation.

The upshot of the federal report is that the State of California, the local districts, and education partners at the community college level could do a better job of tracking the data for high school graduation rates. Policymakers should also think about what counts as a ‘success’. For example, California community colleges have an open door policy. If a high school dropout enrolls in a local community college and completes a postsecondary level certificate or earns an associates degree or even transfers to a state university without earning an associates degree, does the high school diploma even matter at that point?

What do you think?

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