Making better use of graduation rates to assess school success

José BandaApril 13, 2016
Part Six: Graduation Rates
Superintendent José BandaLast year, the state’s graduation rate reached a record high with the California Department of Education reporting that 80.8 percent of students graduated with their class in 2014, a gain of more than 6 percent since 2010.
That’s good news. High school graduation is an important indicator of educational success and an essential milestone on the road to college or a career with a living wage. Importantly, many subgroups such as Latino students and English learners also made gains in graduation rates.
Graduation rates for counties, districts and schools across California are calculated based on a four-year cohort (9th through 12th grade) using the state’s California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS).
This system is important as it provides detailed data on graduation rates and drop out rates, as well as data on students still in school who have not yet graduated. By breaking the data down by subgroup categories such as income level, race or ethnicity, or English Learner status, the data provides school districts an important information tool they can use to better target their efforts to increase graduation and reduce dropouts.
The CORE Districts, of which Sacramento City Unified is one, include graduation rates as part of the School Quality Improvement Index, a more comprehensive system we have developed to measure school progress. We use the state’s graduation results because it would be very difficult to replicate the state’s analysis. It has the most comprehensive information about where kids go when they hop from one school to another and the most accurate information about kids who didn’t graduate and never enrolled elsewhere.
This is Part 6 of an ongoing series on the CORE Districts’ work to design a new accountability system.
Part 1:  Toward a new accountability system 
Part 2: Measuring high school readiness
Part 3: Measuring English learner success
Part 4: Measuring social-emotional learning
Part 5: Measuring chronic absenteeism
Part 6: Graduation Rates

For purposes of the School Quality Improvement Index, CORE Districts follow the state model. Every student entering high school in the CORE Districts is automatically placed into a four-year cohort. Students who transfer out are subtracted from the cohort. New enrollees are added to the cohort as they transfer in. The number of graduates four years later is used to calculate the four-year cohort graduation rate.
In addition to measuring four-year graduation rates, CORE Districts are measuring five- and six-year cohort graduation rates – in other words, tracking students who take longer than the traditional four years to graduate. In doing so, the CORE Districts are placing high value on continuing to work with youth who may need additional time to complete high school graduation requirements, such as late-entering language learners who learn English along with their academic coursework. Districts will get credit in the School Quality Improvement Index for the work they do with these older students.
One of the challenges school districts across California face in using graduation rates in a meaningful way is that they are a lagging indicator of where students are at any particular time. In other words, the results come out in the spring for students from the prior year’s cohort.
We would be very interested in collaborating with the state and with other districts to explore the release of preliminary graduation rate data in the summer immediately after a student’s senior year rather than waiting until months after the school year is over to get our first glimpse of graduation rates. That data could be used to support continuous improvement efforts that will help to increase graduation rates.
Accurate and timely graduation rates can help schools and districts understand barriers that impede students from graduating on time and inform strategies for increasing the number of students who graduate ready for college or ready to pursue meaningful work. As California develops a new system of educational accountability, the state would do well to include and build on the work we are already doing to more accurately measure the rates of graduation of its students.
José L. Banda is superintendent of Sacramento City Unified School District.
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