The high school graduation rate in the United States will not increase as quickly as experts think it can without more improvement in California, which educates one-fifth of the nation's low-income school children and more Hispanic students than any other state, a report set to be released Monday concludes.
The "Building a Grad Nation" report, produced by a coalition of advocacy groups and researchers at Johns Hopkins University, credits the nation's most populous and diverse state with developing effective strategies that helped push its 2012 graduation rate to 79 percent, an increase of five percentage points from two years earlier and one point below the national average.
"California has been making progress, notwithstanding huge demographic changes and budget challenges," said the report's authors, who foresee 90 percent of the nation's high school students earning diplomas in 2020, if recent trends hold. "Educators have learned how to address the needs of students from non-English speaking backgrounds; districts have embarked on major reform efforts (and) large investments were made in out-of-school-time learning."
The gains from 2010 to 2012, the most recent year for which statistics were available, were seen across economic and racial groups, with the graduation rate for socioeconomically disadvantaged high school seniors also increasing five percentage points, from 68 percent to 73 percent. During the same two-year period, the growth was six percentage points for Hispanic and African-American students, who graduated at a rate of 74 percent and 66 percent, respectively.
Among the factors contributing to the positive trend are the state's $550 million annual investment in after-school and summer classes for students in kindergarten through ninth grade, outreach and support programs geared at parents who do not speak English and the creation within high schools of smaller programs that combine a career theme with academics.
"This is really something most educators buy into, the need to graduate from high school," Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Protect at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "I think they have realized it's no more work to them other than to pay a little more attention to kids."
But Rumberger, who has reviewed the report and contributed information to it, cautioned against painting too rosy a picture. He noted that the four-year graduation rate in 2012 was 62 percent for California's English language learners, who make up 29 percent of the state's K-12 student population.
"There is movement in it. It has gone up more compared to for the state as a whole. But that still means one out of every three English learners is dropping out of high school, so that's nothing to brag about," he said.
The California Department of Education could show it was serious about boosting the four-year graduation rate by including the information in a school-by-school accountability program, Rumberger said.
"I don't personally think the state is doing as much as it could or should, and I don't think the federal government is either," he said.
Joanna Fox, a senior policy analyst at Johns Hopkins who wrote the part of the report on California, said she is hopeful the state's new school funding system, which directs money to schools based on how many students they have from low-income families, learning English or living in foster care, will help keep the national momentum going.
"I think California can drive it, to be honest, because of the size of your student population," Fox said.
The report was a collaboration of the America's Promise Alliance, a coalition of groups focused on helping disadvantaged young people that was founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell; the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins; the Alliance for Excellent Education; and the public policy firm Civic Enterprises. It is scheduled to be presented Monday in Washington at the Building a GradNation Summit.
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson also is scheduled to release high school completion data for the class of 2013 on Monday.