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Mission Bay High School / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Ever since a new countrywide method for tallying graduation rates went into effect in 2011, the U.S. government has been trumpeting rising graduation rates. So have the state of California and San Diego Unified.

But two of these things are not like the other.

Earlier this year, a federal audit found that California was seriously overcounting its graduates. To get into compliance, the state agreed to fix the way it calculated graduation rates, by not including adult education diplomas as well as making other changes. But now, as auditors expected would happen, graduation rates have dropped across the state, in some cases by several points.

Under Superintendent Cindy Marten, San Diego inched its graduation rate for the class of 2016 above 90 percent — a rare feat among urban school districts, which Marten often pointed to as a key measure of her administration’s success.

But under the new formula, the district’s graduation rate is only slightly above the national average. It is 86.6 percent for the class of 2017, but would have been 90.6 percent under the old California formula.

This is how each district in the county fared:

[infogram id=”63116242-55c3-42fc-8a8f-3b297f1efc36″ prefix=”ltN” format=”interactive” title=”2017 County Graduation Rates”]

And this is how graduation rates looked for the state’s 10 largest school districts:

[infogram id=”e01f563d-c3d2-43b0-b696-ca6f9bec2264″ prefix=”w56″ format=”interactive” title=”2017 State Graduation Rates”]

Graduation rates are slightly complicated formulas that may not mean exactly what you think they do. Many students who aren’t performing well, for instance, transfer to charter schools as graduation approaches. But San Diego’s graduation rate has been climbing in the last few years. It just hasn’t been as high as officials thought, which is also true of school districts across California.

Here’s how the state had to change its formula to get in line with the rest of the country:

  • The biggest change has to do with adult education degrees and high school proficiency exams. Previously, those were tallied toward the number of students who graduated. Now, California school districts can only count students receive who regular high school diplomas in their graduate column.
  • Transfer students are another major part of understanding grad rates. When a student legitimately transfers to another regular high school, whatever school she left can subtract her from their totals. The school doesn’t need to count her as a non-graduate. But previously, California districts subtracted students who transferred to adult education programs or community colleges. That is now forbidden.
  • California schools often counted students as legitimate transfers even when they didn’t have the proper documentation to do so, according to a federal audit released in January. Now, the state will require school districts to get paperwork from the receiving school to prove the student actually transferred.
  • Some districts previously counted students who left school to enter residential treatment or health facilities as legitimate transfers. The same was done with some students who went into home school. School districts will now have to count these students among their non-graduates.
  • Graduation rates are meant to calculate the percentage of students who graduate in four years. But in some cases, when a ninth grader fell behind a year, a schools would shift him into the next graduating class – in education jargon it’s called a cohort. That student could then be counted among those who graduated in four years, even if it took him five or six years. State officials told districts to stop this practice.

Growth – or decline – in a graduation rate is part of how California evaluates the progress of its many school districts. But the new formula means it will be impossible to compare graduation rates in recent years to the class of 2017. The state is pushing to have graduation rates for the class of 2018 publicly available by December so the metric can be utilized in the state rating system.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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