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As Students Prepare for a New School Year—Officials Reflect on 2017 Graduation Rates

S.E. Williams

Included among the millions of American students preparing for the 2018-2019 school year is a cohort of young people entering high school across the state of California as freshmen.

The quintessential question that will follow these freshmen for the duration of their high school careers is—how many of them will ultimately become graduating seniors?

The California Department of Education answered that very important question regarding students who started high school as ninth graders in 2013-14 and graduated on-time four years later in 2017. According to state’s just released  2017 High School Graduation Rates report, 82.7 percent of those students graduated successfully and on time. 

This percentage represented a slight decline in the state’s graduation rate as compared to the 83.8 percent who attained graduation in 2016. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson attributed the decline to a new methodology that was adopted by the state in response to a federal audit.

“As part of this new methodology,” Torlakson explained, “three significant changes were implemented for calculating 2017 high school graduation rates.” 

The changes eliminated the inclusion of two groups from the cohort calculation. The groups no longer included in the calculation of high school graduates are those who receive an adult education high school diplomas and students who pass the California High School Proficiency Exam. Although these two groups are no longer calculated in the high school graduation totals, students who transfer to adult education programs or a community college will remain in the denominator for the cohort calculation.

Despite these changes and their impact on the state’s graduation rates, Torlakson remarked, “California continues to make excellent progress in education.” Adding, “The percentage of our graduates eligible for the University of California and the California State University is soaring. In addition, more of our students are passing Advanced Placement ® exams and the number demonstrating proficiency in a foreign language has quadrupled since 2011.”

Torkalson also admitted, however, that the data also revealed what he defined as—a significant challenge. “As in previous years, disparities in graduation rates continue.” Torlakson said admitting that much work needs to be done to narrow what he said is a “pernicious, persistent” achievement gap between students. “We have a long way to go and need help from everyone—teachers, parents, administrators and community members—to narrow these gaps.”  

The 2017 graduation rates among students in the Inland Empire reflected the following results: In Riverside County the 2017 graduation rate was 88.0 percent and although it represented a decline from the 89.4 percent rate attained in 2016, it was above the statewide average. In San Bernardino County the results painted a slightly different picture. The 2017 cohort graduation rate was 82.6 percent, down slightly from the 83.0 percent attain in 2016 and below the 82.7 percent statewide average. 

Responding to an inquiry from The Voice/Black Voice News, about this year’s results, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, Ted Alejandre said, “Progress has been made by San Bernardino County students and schools in increasing graduation rates.”

Alejandre discussed the changes enacted by the California Department of Education as detailed above and noted how students in the county nearly matched statewide averages for graduation rates. “I applaud our students, families, schools and districts for the efforts that have been made to increase our countywide graduation rates, but there remains work to do to ensure that every student is college and career ready by the time they graduate from high school.” 

Alejandre also addressed the disparities in graduation rates identified by Tokalson as a significant challenge across the state. For African American students in San Bernardino County the 2017 graduation rate was 75.9 percent versus 84.6 percent for Whites. Although this reflects a 8.7 disparity, Alejandre noted it is nearly three percent above the statewide average of 73.1 percent for African American students.

During the 2016-17 academic year in San Bernardino County, there were 3,036 African American students among the cohort. At 8.4 percent, African American students are the third largest ethnic subgroup of students in San Bernardino County behind Hispanic/Latino (64.6 percent) and White (17.3 percent) students.

Commenting on the graduation rates of African American students in San Bernardino County Alejandre said, “During the past eight years of the state using the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS), African American students in our county have made 15.6 percent growth in high school graduation rates while closing the achievement gap with White students from 10 percent to 6.7 percent.”

Alejandre concluded, “Having instituted a countywide African American Student Achievement Task Force in 2016, we know that districts are sharing best practices to improve academic achievement for African American students.” 

African American students in Riverside County demonstrated greater success regarding the numbers that graduated in 2017. The 2017 graduation rate for Black students in the County was 85.9 percent versus 90.0 percent for White students. This reflected a slight decline from the 86.2 percent graduation rate attained by African American students in 2016.  

Statewide, those following the push and pull between Charter and traditional public schools will be interested to learn the 2017 graduation rate for California charter schools, excluding alternative schools, was 82 percent. By comparison, non-charter schools, excluding alternative schools, showed a graduation rate of 91.5 percent. 

Alternative schools include, but are not limited to, continuation, juvenile court, county-run special education schools, alternative schools of choice These schools serve high risk students who are already at the greatest risk of dropping out, compared with the broader population at traditional high schools. 

Tokalson highlighted other important changes in this year’s cohort data when he noted, “Since 2007, there has been more than a 30 percent increase in high school graduates eligible for UC and more than a 53 percent increase in CSU eligibility.” 

Among other changes to the graduation report is an upgrade which includes the number of high school graduates who earned a State Seal of Biliteracy. The seal recognizes graduates who attained a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading, and writing one or more languages in addition to English. In 2017, for example, 44,594 California graduates earned the State Seal of Biliteracy. 

Tokalson has advocated for vastly expanding the teaching and learning of world languages and is committed to more than tripling the number of students who receive the State Seal of Biliteracy by 2030. Tokalson’s Global California 2030 initiative reflects his commitment to this goal. 

In conclusion, it is important to note that since prior graduation rates used a different methodology, the 2017 graduation rates should not be compared to prior years.

To view state, county, district, and school graduation and dropout rates, visit the California Department of Education’s DataQuest web page located at under Data and Statistics at

“For America’s students, the new school year is a time for learning lessons, making friends, and setting goals. For America’s parents, it is a time to focus on the role education plays in their children’s lives and future. And for our Nation, it is a time to strengthen our efforts to improve the quality of education and to make America’s schools safe, nurturing places where children can reach their full potential.”
President William J. Clinton


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