SAN DIEGO–The San Diego Education Research Alliance (SanDERA) today published a new report that documents rising academic achievement within the San Diego Unified School District, including the highest graduation rates of any big-city district in the state.
“We now have another report that validates the improving academic results in our district,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten. “It shows again that academic excellence is on the rise across San Diego Unified. These important gains do not happen without extraordinary effort from our professional educators, but especially our students. I am so proud of all their hard work. Together, we are building the best big city district in the state of California.”
The new report looks at the academic performance of San Diego Unified School District’s class of 2016, the first one required to meet new college-prep graduation standards. A record 91 percent of students graduated in 2016 under the new more rigorous standards, an increase of 2 percent over the 2015 graduation rate.
SanDERA’s report, “The ‘College Prep for All’ Mandate – An Update on How San Diego’s Class of 2016 Has Fared with New Graduation Requirements” explains the differences in the district’s graduation rate methodology – mandated by the California Department of Education – and the projection of a lower graduation rate SanDERA made in its initial 2016 report. SanDERA’s latest study notes the difference stems from modeling since the state uses a different model than SanDERA to determine graduation rates. Neither the state nor San Diego Unified includes in its graduation rate students who left the district for other high schools.
Under the district’s new graduation policy, students must complete what is called the “a-g sequence” of more than a dozen courses needed to apply to a UC or CSU campus in order to earn a diploma. San Diego Unified has put in place multiple strategies to help students earn more meaningful diplomas.
The report showed an increase of nearly 10 percentage points in the number of students who earned a grade of C or better in a-g courses. The more rigorous standards did not result in an increase of students transferring out of district high schools; and the grade point average among the most struggling students did not drop.
“San Diego Unified’s a-g” efforts have always been grounded in the belief that when students are given access and opportunity to rigorous coursework they achieve high levels of excellence — a belief that was affirmed when the state revealed significant 2016 college readiness gains among our Hispanic and African-American subgroups,” said Cheryl Hibbeln, executive director of San Diego Unified’s Office of Secondary Schools. “The current SanDERA findings are further affirmation that the district employed specific, strategic and sound system-wide supports to help ensure that underrepresented students in our system were allowed the opportunity to show us their genius.”
Ron Rode, San Diego Unified’s director of research and evaluation, said students once considered unlikely to graduate beat the odds through hard work and participation in new academic programs.
“SanDERA found that about 15 percent of 2016 graduates who were off track in at least one subject area after grade 11 were able to bridge the gap in order to graduate,” Rode said. “This improvement was due to student effort and family support as well as very focused support from school and central office staffs on the specific needs of each student.”
Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Board of Education, said it was through collaboration that the district was able to change and implement more meaningful graduation standards.
“Several years ago, our district and a coalition of community organizations took a leap forward, believing that if we raised our graduation standards and provided our students with support and access to college preparatory courses, they would rise to the occasion,” Barrera said. “While we have work to do to ensure that every student graduates and is prepared to succeed in the next phase of their lives, the fact that the class of 2016 achieved the highest graduation rate in the history of the district shows what our students can do if we believe in them.”
Among the strategies San Diego Unified is using to help more students graduate are:
• Elimination of “filler courses” that don’t count toward college
• Allowing students to test out of the foreign-language requirement by passing an exam proving their skills in their native language
• Expanding summer school for high school students
• Offering online courses
The SanDERA researchers noted that students enrolled in the district’s new online credit recovery courses that satisfy the a-g requirements earned grades that were “typically quite low, suggesting that students did not necessarily find these courses to be easy.”
Julian Betts, SanDERA’s executive director, said of the report, “The good news is unequivocal,” but he said the district must to do more to reach the students who struggle the most.
“While we projected only about seven out of 10 students would complete a-g coursework and graduate in 2016, it is clear eight out of 10 did so, a credit to the students and educators for hard, yet impressive, work,” said Betts, who also noted that most students who did transfer out of high school, “lagged far behind in a-g coursework completion.”
In addition to analyzing graduation rates and student performance, the report looked into allegations a local news outlet raised about the district’s graduation rate. Data analysis included in the report helps confirm the allegations are false.
The San Diego Education Research Alliance (SanDERA) is the second local research organization to publish a detailed look at graduation data from San Diego Unified under the new graduation policy. Last October, Alliance San Diego published a similar exploration of the district’s efforts to increase graduation rates and put in place more rigorous graduation standards. Both reports concluded the strategies put in place by San Diego Unified to increase graduations are working.
San Diego Unified will convene a special committee to review the report’s findings and make recommendations.
To read the SanDERA College Prep for All report, visit sandera.ucsd.edu.