Data released Tuesday by the California Department of Education shows that 91 percent of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 graduated, earning the district a record-high graduation rate and making good on a prediction school board members made a year ago.

The new data solidifies what was already considered a big success for Superintendent Cindy Marten and members of the San Diego Unified school board, who have held up rising grad rates as a reflection of their leadership.

Last year, school officials announced a projected graduation rate of 92 percent. Now, those numbers have been vetted by the California Department of Education and the official number is 91.2 percent.

“The students, parents and teachers of San Diego Unified should be immensely proud of this achievement. Not only did the class of 2016 achieve the highest big-district graduation rate in the state, they did it while we raised the requirements to graduate. Our students have proven once again they will achieve more when we ask more from them,” Marten said in a press release.

San Diego Unified wasn’t the only school district to see an increase. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson announced Tuesday the statewide graduation rate increased for the seventh consecutive year.

But the 91 percent number doesn’t show all the factors that came together to make the rate possible. For months, Voice of San Diego has been detailing the ways in which San Diego Unified achieved its unprecedented graduation rate. Whether it was revamping the courses high schools offered, allowing certain students to test out of requirements or losing low-performing students to charter schools, the district moved students toward its graduation rate in a variety of ways.

Here is some of what the graduation rate doesn’t show.

Ds Get Diplomas

Around 2009, activists began pointing out that across the district students did not have equal access to college-going classes. Several high schools, for example, offered students an algebra course that didn’t count toward the classes that University of California and California State University schools require for admission.

So in 2011, the school board passed a resolution that said starting in 2016, every student who graduated high school will have taken a series of college-prep classes, known as A-G courses. At the time, some worried that beefing up graduation requirements would cause the graduation rate to plummet. So the school board split the baby.

Instead of requiring students to earn at least a C in A-G courses – the grade students must earn for them to count for admission to UC and CSU schools – the school board decided to allow students to pass with Ds, so long as their overall GPA remained above a 2.0.

So while the school board can say with certainty that now more students than before at least have access to college-going classes, the grad rate doesn’t show how many students passed with Ds or how many will have to retake those courses once they get to college.

According to data the state released, only 59.6 percent of San Diego Unified students from the class of 2016 graduated with Cs or better in A-G classes and actually met UC and CSU entrance requirements.

That’s an improvement of 13 percentage points from 2012, but it’s a far lower number than the 91 percent who graduated.

Testing Out of Requirements

Data released by the district in 2014 showed just 59 percent of students were on track to graduate in 2016.

More concerning yet was the outlook for English-learners: A mere 9 percent were on track to graduate. A big part of what set this group so far behind was the requirement to take two years of a foreign language.

Cheryl Hibbeln, who heads the district’s the High School Resources Office, argued that it didn’t make sense to require students who already speak a foreign language to spend two years learning another. So the district began to allow students to test out of the foreign language requirement.

Students who passed an alternative exam for a Language Other Than English didn’t earn credits for graduation but could skip the requirement.

In 2015, 240 students passed the exam. By the end of 2016, it had jumped to 1,075.

The High School Exit Exam Was Discontinued

Starting in 2006, all students in California had to pass an exit exam to show they graduated high school with basic skills in math and English. Those who didn’t pass could earn a certificate of completion, but not a diploma.

But in 2015, that the state suspended use of the exit exam. And students who hadn’t graduated because they didn’t pass the exit exam could earn a diploma retroactively. The class of 2016 was the first group of students to benefit from the change.

The exit exam wasn’t a barrier for a huge portion of students. According to EdSource, between 2006 and 2016, only about 249,000 students, or 6 percent of test­-takers, couldn’t pass the exam before the end of their senior year.

Still, starting with the class of 2016, graduating high school in California was made a little bit easier.

Thousands of Students Left the District – and No Longer Count Toward the Grad Rate

In 2012, 8,745 students from the class of 2016 entered their freshman year in a San Diego Unified high school. So you might assume the graduation rate reflects 91 percent of those students.

It doesn’t. Only 65 percent of the students who started their freshmen year in a San Diego Unified high school remained in a district-managed high school through their senior year. Most of the rest transferred to charter schools, schools in another district or left the state altogether.

So long as students show up to the schools to which they transferred, they’re excluded from the district’s grad rate. Only if those students failed to show up at their new schools after they transfer are they counted as dropouts.

There’s nothing wrong or improper about the district excluding those students from its graduation rate. But the district certainly benefited from having a smaller pool of students to push toward graduation.

Students Who Remained in District High Schools Benefited From Online Courses

Last school year, 1,381 seniors – more than 20 percent of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 – took an online version of a course required for graduation. About 92 percent of them passed.

Those courses were developed by a company called Edgenuity, to whom district paid $800,000 in 2015 to develop online courses aligned with entrance requirements to UC schools. The following year the district re-upped the contract, for a total of $1.28 million.

Credit-recovery courses are generally pared-down versions of the courses students need to graduate. Students don’t have to spend a full semester in order to complete them. They can skip sections if they answer seven out of 10 questions correctly on a pretest.

The online courses allowed students to double up credits so they could make up work they missed in previous years.

Even though those online courses are approved by the University of California, not every organization takes a favorable view. In 2010, according to the Los Angeles Times, the NCAA, the body that governs collegiate athletes, instituted a policy that said any online course taken for credit recovery must be comparable in “length, content and rigor” to a regular course taught in a classroom and that students must have regular interaction with a teacher during the course.

Charter Schools Acted as a Safety Net

If San Diego Unified students wanted to avoid A-G courses, they could transfer to a charter school and still come away with diplomas. Charter schools create their own graduation requirements.

Several students at one charter school in Rolando Park said they left the district because they were too far behind in credits to graduate on time. Others said they were informally advised by staff members to transfer to charter schools due to low grades and problematic behavior.

At least 30 percent of the students from the class of 2016 left a San Diego Unified high school for a charter school after the start of their freshman year, according to numbers the district has provided.

But the actual number of students who opted for charters may be higher, because the number the district provided reflects only those who transferred to charter schools in San Diego. If students went to a charter school in another school district, they were counted as having transferred to another school district.

Data provided by just six local charter schools shows that between 2014 and 2016, at least 931 students left San Diego Unified high schools after the start of their freshman year, en route to a charter school.

At least 584 of those students – or 63 percent – were more than a year behind at the time they transferred.

Those 584 students only represent a fraction of San Diego Unified’s class of 2016. Still, had they dropped out or failed to graduate, it would have had a notable impact on the overall graduation rate – dropping it from 91 to 83 percent.

And if, after they transferred, those students drop out or stop going to the charter schools, the dropouts are reflected in the charter schools’ graduation numbers, not San Diego Unified’s. That fact helped the district earn a remarkably low dropout rate of 3.4 percent.

Neither the district nor the charter schools are breaking any rules as hundreds of students shift from one to the other. But the numbers offer a window into the way a school district benefits from a system that allows it to unload its lowest-performing students and maintain a graduation rate above 90 percent.

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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