Last week, Education Week reported the U.S. Department of Education is auditing graduation rates in California and Alabama, making sure the two states are accurately reporting how many students graduate high school within four years.

According to a report from the Office of Inspector General, which first revealed plans for the audit, the office is making sure California education officials “have implemented systems of internal control over calculating and reporting graduation rates that are sufficient to ensure that reported graduation rates are accurate and reliable.”

Learning Curve-sq-01

Beyond that, the Office of Inspector General is tight-lipped on the reasons for the audit, telling EdWeek it needed to protect the integrity of the investigation.

Among other issues, feds may focus on whether state education officials have been accurately reporting what are known as adjusted cohort rates, a uniform way of measuring how many students who start high school at the same time finish with their peers.

Prior to 2011, when feds started requiring all states to follow the uniform method, states used different calculation methods, some of which artificially inflated grad rates.

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in May that California’s graduation rate had reached a record high for the sixth straight year. Since 2010, the state’s graduation rate grew by 7.6 percentage points. Torlakson attributed the gains to additional money that flowed to schools over the same time period.

Despite the rising rates, however, scores on some measures haven’t kept pace. Between 2010 and 2015, as the state’s graduation rates rose, the share of students meeting the national average on the SATs actually dropped.

Meanwhile, San Diego Unified officials projected in May that the district would graduate 92 percent of the class of 2016 – a record high. More notable is that the rate was achieved under new, more rigorous standards.

But when Voice of San Diego set out to find out how what, exactly, that graduation rate measured, we were surprised to learn the district excluded thousands of students in order to achieve its record-setting grad rate.

Only 65 percent of students who entered their freshman year at the same time remained in San Diego Unified schools all four years of high school. Thousands of students moved to other school districts, left the country or transferred to a charter school during high school. And once they left, the district essentially removed them from the equation.

The students who remained in district-managed schools also got a big boost from online recovery classes. Roughly one in five students in last year’s senior class took an online version of the courses they needed to graduate – and 92 percent aced them. A pass-rate that high raises immediate concerns about the difficulty of the courses, a point that Los Angeles Times has repeatedly called into question as it relates to Los Angeles Unified.

We have, too. San Diego Unified officials have shed some light on which students are counted within the cohort via emails, but have declined repeated requests to meet in person to discuss the numbers. At the district’s suggestion, we’ve submitted public records requests to find out more information. The district said it plans to respond to our request in four months, so we’ll look forward to that.

So far, none of the strategies used by San Diego Unified appear to have skirted graduation reporting rules. But if some or many of California’s school districts are taking similar approaches, we have to wonder what a graduation rate even measures.

Ed Reads of the Week

Marne Foster Case Still Mystifies (San Diego Union-Tribune)

Former San Diego Unified trustee Marne Foster resigned last February as part of a plea deal, but in the wake of that decision the school district was stuck with a $228,000 legal bill. And San Diego Unified was less than transparent about how it squared that bill.

When the school board first called for an investigation into Foster, it said it would cost no more than $40,000, that a full report would be provided within 30 days, and that the district would bar whichever law firm it hired from doing business with the district for an “extended period of time” to ensure the integrity of the probe.

In the end, however, the district kept to none of those terms.

In response to our reporting, the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board wrote: “Foster is gone, having resigned in February in a plea deal with prosecutors over accepting illegal gifts. But the school officials’ mishandling of this mess continues to mystify us, if not mortify them.”

Thanks, guys. We’re mystified, too.

Bilingual Education Returns to California. Now What? (NPR)

After 18 years under an English-only mandate, last month Californians approved Proposition 58, which lifts restrictions on bilingual education and makes it easier for schools to open dual-language programs.

Bilingual education advocates celebrated the results. For years, they’ve been pointing to research that shows students in bilingual classrooms can outperform their peers in English-only classrooms. And the benefits of bilingual education extend to native English speakers, too.

Now, school districts across the state are wrestling with what the change will mean for them. Among the issues to be sorted out are how many new bilingual schools will open, how much it will cost school districts and where schools are going to find enough bilingual teachers to staff schools – no easy task in a state without a robust bilingual teacher pipeline.

Silicon Valley’s undocumented youth face economic, educational barriers (Mercury News)

Silicon Valley, known for technological innovation and affluence, is also a place where young, undocumented residents lack of access to education, affordable housing and health care and face frequent discrimination, according to a new report from the UCLA Labor Center.

Read as one young person grapples with the disparity: “People just assume that because we’re undocumented, we don’t contribute to this country. We’re the foundation of this country,” said Sarahi Salamanca, who was named one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30 earlier this year.

Charter challenges appellate ruling to state Supreme Court (San Diego Union-Tribune)

This seemingly obscure case out of Northern California will have a major impact on the local charter school community. At issue is where charter schools can open satellite campuses, or so-called resource centers.

Charter schools in San Diego County, which has been ground zero for legal fights on the matter, are watching the case closely. At least six school districts in San Diego County have filed suits or entered into litigation to stop charter schools from infiltrating their boundaries.

In October, a state appellate court ruled that charter schools can open satellite campuses in their home school district and in neighboring counties, but can’t open them in neighboring school districts within the same county.

Local charter school leader Cameron Curry, whose schools could be affected by the decision, says it doesn’t make sense that charter school leaders could open a satellite campus in Orange County, for example, but couldn’t open one in a nearby district without approval.

This week, the Northern California charter school at the center of the case challenged the decision to the state Supreme Court in an attempt to reverse the lower court’s ruling. You can read the petition here.

The case pits charter schools against school districts and their attorneys, both of which accuse the other side of being driven by money instead of what’s best for kids.

Yet, even as school districts like San Diego Unified are trying to shut down independent study charter schools, they’re expanding very similar programs.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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