Graduation rates are up again California. Last week, state officials announced that more than 83 percent of high school seniors earned their diplomas last year on time.
The Class of 2016 was the seventh in a row to improve on the rate of the year before it. And the Department of Education indicated the achievement gap may be shrinking, with gains for Latino, African American and other groups of students who have struggled.
If only Sacramento City Unified School District could say the same.
Instead, in an unsettling trend, Sac City’s graduation rates, which only a few years ago were improving, now lag the state and county and appear to have backslid.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Since the 2012-13 school year, the state overall has added 3 percentage points to its graduation rate. The county’s has risen by nearly 2 points.
If Sac City trustees are serious about fixing the district’s backsliding graduation numbers, they’ll start by choosing a change agent as the new superintendent.
But Sac City’s graduation rate – which exceeded 85 percent in 2013 – tanked by 5 points in 2014 and has scarcely budged since.
Only 80.5 percent of the district’s 3,200-plus high school seniors graduated last year. Dropout rates worsened to nearly 11 percent from 6.1 percent in 2013. That’s about 350 lost kids.
There are issues with graduation rates, and serious questions about whether California has diluted standards to inflate them. Some districts hustle failing students through with dumbed-down credit recovery courses, and last year the state eliminated an exit exam that set a minimum graduation threshold. The methodology for calculating graduation rates changed in 2010, and whether it’s that or rebounding education spending, the rise has been remarkable.
But high bar or low, Sac City should at least be improving. The district isn’t using different rules or a tougher graduation standard. Yet the dropout rate for African American students was 19 percent, more than double the 2013 number. The dropout rate for special education students was nearly tripled to 18 percent, more than 4 points higher than the state average.
College readiness for English learners – the proportion of students who had passed the A-G course requirements for admission to the University of California – fell from an already too-low 23.1 percent in 2013 to an appalling 9.8 percent.
Comparable districts don’t seem to share Sac City’s problem. Long Beach Unified’s graduation rate has improved every year, and exceeds 84 percent now. Fresno Unified’s has moved from about 76 percent to more than 85 percent since 2013, due famously to an innovative focus on real-time accountability and data.
Sac City used to track data and set standards, too, under former Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, until the hard-charging former accountability officer stepped down in 2013 amid conflict with the teachers union.
His soon-to-retire successor, José Banda, hired out of Washington state in 2014 to calm the waters, has had better labor relations. But the metric most associated with Banda has been his $223,300 CalSTRS pension; before coming to Sacramento, he told a Seattle radio station that a big part of the draw here was the prospect of a richer retirement.
Board President Jay Hansen, speaking to a member of The Bee editorial board, called the district’s numbers “unacceptable” and vowed to address them, adding: “We are taking this problem very seriously.”
If so, the board can start with Banda’s successor. Finalists are being interviewed now, and a new superintendent should be named by month’s end. Sac City urgently needs a change agent who can set some ambitious goals and hold to quantifiable standards, even if its notoriously contentious teachers union protests.
There’s a child and a future behind every one of those numbers. Adults need to be accountable to them.