California has made higher graduation rates one of its key measures for assessing school performance as part of its new accountability system. Graduation rates have increased steadily in California in recent years, now reaching an average of 83.2 percent for the class of 2016.
But just how high can or should graduation rates go?
Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Michelle King has set a goal of graduating 100 percent of district students.
But one of the state's leading experts on how to increase graduation rates says that is not likely to happen without far-reaching changes in the society as a whole.
Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara who directs the California Dropout Research Project, said poverty is too big an obstacle for some students to overcome. Although the graduation rate has increased, more than 50,000 students drop out of high school each year, he said.
“A lot of kids and their families live in very dire circumstances, with food insecurity and health issues that affect their ability to learn,” he said. “Even if schools are working their butts off, most people would agree, you’re never going to solve any major problem like graduation rates without attempts to help kids and families improve."
"If we guaranteed every kid could not live in poverty, I bet we could do it," Rumberger added. "Until we solve poverty, we’ll never solve high school graduation rates.”
Similar sentiments were expressed at the recent EdSource Symposium, where Rumberger was one of several experts on a panel that discussed whether California is adequately serving its most vulnerable children, including students at risk of dropping out of high school.
Rumberger said Latino and other student groups who have historically lagged behind have made “remarkable” graduation gains, but he cautioned that “a high school diploma is really a blunt instrument and it doesn’t really tell us too much about what a student has learned.”
He is currently raising research funding to begin digging deeper into what students are learning and hopes to complete this new phase of his research in the next couple of years.
“We have a set of academic requirements for graduation,” he said during the EdSource panel discussion. “But what we are really interested in is: ‘What kind of preparation have those students received?’”
A person’s high school experience, he said, is pivotal to his or her future and “defines their trajectory in life.” Those who fail “have a very bleak future,” whereas those who thrive go onto college and “do incredibly well.”
One of the concerns he wants to explore further is the rising use of “credit recovery” or online courses that students are taking in some districts, including Los Angeles Unified, to make up for more traditional semester-long courses that students may have failed.
“The rigor of that (credit recovery courses) is questionable,” he said, adding that districts still have a lot of discretion in what they require of students before giving them diplomas.
And beyond just ensuring that students graduate from high school, Rumberger said it is important to adequately prepare students for college and careers beyond high school.
While many colleges and universities still rely in part on the results of tests such as the SAT or ACT to make admissions decisions, Rumberger said the best predictor of college success is high school grades. Passing students with a “D,” he said, is likely not sufficient to prepare them for college.
Rumberger praised districts such as Oakland Unified, which is working to help those students who come to high school performing below grade level to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to graduate in five or six years instead of four. These students should also be counted in districts’ graduation rates, he said, adding that the state currently calculates its graduation rates based on those who graduate within four years.
“The schools and students should be applauded,” he said, after Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell described during the EdSource symposium her district's efforts to boost graduation rates. “Good for them. They persevered. We should acknowledge districts like Oakland that are sticking with these kids and getting them to graduate."
He also praised Fresno Unified for its efforts to not only improve graduation rates, but improve instruction and student learning, especially for its Latino students. In the past seven years, Fresno’s graduation rate has grown from 69.2 percent to 85.4 percent, surpassing the state average of 83.2 percent. Meanwhile, its graduation rate for Latino students grew from 64.7 percent to 85.6 percent, exceeding the state average of 80 percent for all Latino students.
“Fresno implemented some real improvements in teacher training and curriculum and I think it’s paid off,” Rumberger said, crediting the work of the district’s graduation task force established several years ago.
Another indicator of college readiness is course enrollment, especially in college prep classes such as Advanced Placement and dual enrollment college-level courses, Rumberger said, adding that he wants to delve into the data for courses taken by students statewide.
Dual enrollment allows students to take college-level classes while in high school — often on a college campus — with credits counting toward high school graduation as well as toward college credit requirements.
“Students don’t have to take any of those classes to graduate,” he said. “But if they want to be prepared for college, dual enrollment (classes) help because not only do they get credit, but exposure to the college environment.”
The big question he is seeking to answer regarding a student's diploma is whether students are meeting the minimum requirements for high school graduation or whether they are truly prepared for success in college.
Even earning a “C,” in a course, he said, may not be good enough to adequately prepare students for college.
“There’s research that suggests a 2.5 GPA (in high school) is the dividing line between being prepared and not being prepared,” he said.
Rumberger wants to research how many students are earning B’s and A’s versus C’s and D’s in high school courses to get a better picture of graduates, looking at both individual course grades and overall grades to see whether they exceed a 2.5 GPA.
His passion stems from what he has learned from his studies.
"The most vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in our country and many countries are those who are the least educated,” he said.
After completing his doctoral dissertation at Stanford University on highly educated college graduates whose education exceeds the needs of their jobs and are underemployed, he said he found that topic was “just not to me as motivating as (studying) the group that never gets out of high school."
“College-educated kids, kids who graduate from high school and college, are privileged,” he said. “But it’s the kids who don’t graduate high school who are the most disadvantaged.”
They die nine years sooner on average than high school graduates, earn half a million dollars less over their lifetimes, are five or six times more likely to be incarcerated, and tend to rank low in most indicators of well-being, including poverty, he said.
“It’s amazing,” Rumberger said. “The people at the bottom are the ones who are high school dropouts. So, it motivated me to say, ‘That’s the group I want to study.’”
Now, as an emeritus professor, that's just what he is continuing to do.
After 28 years as a UC Santa Barbara faculty member, Rumberger has stepped down from his position as a full-time professor, but he’s not ready to stop his research.
“There’s still more work to do and I want to do it, but I have to get the (research) funding," he said. “Every life matters."
This story originally appeared on EdSource.org