Dan Walters

Dan Walters: California graduation rate rises, but achievement gap remains

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Let’s assume, at least for discussion, that maximizing high school graduation rates is – or should be – the primary goal of any public school system.

A corollary assumption, of course, is that a system’s diploma is meaningful, that it indicates the graduate is prepared to enter the workforce or seek post-high-school education.

State schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson announced Monday that California’s high school graduation rate surpassed 80 percent last year with 184,557 of the 244,730 youngsters who entered ninth grade in 2009 receiving diplomas in 2013.

That’s certainly positive news. And by happenstance, Monday’s announcement came as a national report on high school graduation rates was being unveiled in Washington, indicating that California’s 80.2 percent rate is virtually identical to the country’s as a whole.

There are, however, caveats. Although it has narrowed, there is still a marked “achievement gap” between white and Asian American kids on one side and Latino and African American youngsters on the other.

The former had high graduation rates in 2013 – well over 90 percent for Asian Americans – while the latter were still well below the statewide average, just 67.9 percent for black teenagers.

The national report by America’s Promise Alliance took another tack, tying graduation rates to economic standing.

California has the nation’s highest rate of poverty, as measured by a new Census Bureau methodology, its 6-million-student public education system has the nation’s highest proportion of low-income students, 63 percent, and their graduation rate is 73 percent.

“As the most populous state and most diverse state, California needs to be a focus of national attention and work,” the report said. “With the highest poverty rate in the country, a median household income 20 percent higher than the nation’s, and a population that is 61 percent non-Anglo, California is key to reaching 90 percent graduation rate nationally…”

California’s response to the achievement gap, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is a new financing formula that provides extra money to districts with high numbers of poor and “English-learner” students.

But is money the only answer? The national report on graduation rates reveals no correlation between education spending and completing high school.

California is 33rd in per-pupil spending, according to the Census Bureau. States with graduation rates virtually identical to California’s range from Alaska, No. 3 in per-pupil spending, to Utah, which is No. 51.

New York, which is No. 1 in spending, has a lower graduation rate than California, while Texas, which is No. 43, has an 88 percent graduation rate, one of the nation’s highest.

Those numbers imply that while money may be an important factor, it’s not the only one.