Capitol Alert

California’s graduation rate rises, but still mediocre

Lukas Novak tosses hit hat into the air during graduation ceremonies at Folsom High School on May 29, 2014.
Lukas Novak tosses hit hat into the air during graduation ceremonies at Folsom High School on May 29, 2014.

California’s high school graduation rate has improved in recent years but is still mediocre compared to other states, a new national study reveals.

The study, entitled “Building a Grad Nation,” was done for America’s Promise Alliance, a consortium of civic and business groups headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma. Its goal is to raise the national graduation rate, 81.4 percent in 2013, to 90 percent by 2020.

While citing progress in raising graduation rates, Powell says in an open letter accompanying the report that “we are running out of time to close large and lingering gaps in graduation rates among different student populations.”

California’s 2013 graduation rate, 80.4 percent, is a full point below average, although the state was cited in the report for adding 4.4 percentage points to its rate in two years. California’s superintendent of schools, Tom Torlakson, reported last month that the state graduation rate rose again to 80.8 percent last year.

Twenty-eight states had graduation rates higher than California’s in 2013, the study found, with Iowa, at 89.7 percent, Nebraska (88.5 percent), and Texas and Wisconsin (88 percent) coming closest to the 90 percent goal. Oregon had, by far, the lowest rate, 68.7 percent.

The study confirmed the “achievement gap” that Torlakson and other education authorities have been stressing. California’s Asian-American high-schoolers are already above the 90 percent mark, while whites are nearly there. But Latino and African-American students lag far behind.

To hit 90 percent in 2013, California would have needed 42,053 more graduates, and nearly 37,000 of them would have had to be from those two groups. Texas, the nation’s second most populous state, would have needed just 6,520 more graduates to hit 90 percent.

The gap, however, is just as much economic as ethnic. While the state’s overall graduation rate was 80.4 percent in 2013, for low-income students it was 74.8 percent, and for more affluent classmates it was 90.2 percent.

California has, by far, the nation’s highest proportion of low-income high schoolers, 63.6 percent in 2013, with only New Mexico (59 percent), Tennessee (58.9 percent) and West Virginia (56.3 percent) approaching that level. The lowest poverty level was found in North Dakota, 26.1 percent.

The state, at the urging of Gov. Jerry Brown, is addressing the ethnic and economic achievement gaps with a reconfiguration of school finances that is pumping more money into school districts with large numbers of poor and/or “English learner” students. Well over half of the state’s 6.2 million K-12 students fall into one or both of those categories.