Monday, September 9, 2019




       In a legislative season marked by a host of lousy ideas from forcing consumers to bail out negligent utilities to a refusal of warning labels on highly-sugared sodas, one good idea eventually emerged. It stands to reason this one comes not from the state Legislature itself, but from an appointed board.

       The idea: Keep track of five-year graduation rates from California’s public high schools, not just four-year ones.

       This is not merely sensible, but recognizes the new realities of a world where it is simply not practical or advisable for all high school and college students to get their diplomas within the standard four years.

       Yes, four-year high school graduation rates as reported by state officials are up considerably from the dismal 62 percent figure reported as recently as eight years ago. But those numbers were often questionable anyhow, as no system was in place to track students when they switched school districts or dropped out of standard and charter schools, switching to continuation schools and alternative schools operated by county education departments.

       Nor did they account for students forced to drop out for a year or two because of family economics, pregnancies or health emergencies, but who then returned to extension or correspondence schools and finished high school.

       So when the state Board of Education at midsummer joined many other states in giving districts and high schools credit for students who graduate in five years or more, it was merely recognizing reality in an economy where families often need more than one income to survive.

       Using only four-year graduation rates to rate and judge school districts was certainly useful when that was the only available measure. But it severely underplayed the successes of California’s often-criticized education system. Of course, four-year graduation rates will also continue to be tracked and publicized now, as they should be.

       “Many schools are making investments in serving students beyond the traditional four-year program,” Santa Clara County school superintendent Mary Ann Dewan told a reporter. “Data that reflect the true completion rate is vital to continued support for these programs.”

       In other words, Dewan suggests that reported graduation rates of only about 80 percent of students can cause public support for school funding and programs to wane, a development that could reduce actual educational opportunities open to young Californians in an era when education is more vital than ever for individual success and prosperity.

       And the schools apparently deserve more credit than they’re usually given. Former state Schools Supt. Tom Torlakson last year reported that half of all high school graduates met requirements for admission to either the University of California or the Cal State system.

       That included a 30 percent increase in eligibility for UC since 2007 and a 53 percent increase in those prepped for the Cal States.

       The numbers didn’t include students from alternative high schools, which usually serve students who have dropped out previously, been expelled or felt they just could not fit into a traditional high school. Some of these schools run online programs to make education more accessible for dropouts unable to attend any classes.

       Eventually, graduation performance by school districts that is reported to the public will include both four- and five-year rates, giving many schools credit they previously didn’t receive for innovative work and outreach. 

       The impact of the changed system will be seen most dramatically among English-learner students and low-income children, whose four-year graduation rates of about 72 percent each are significantly below the overall levels.

       The new system will also make comparisons of California schools’ performance with those of other states more accurate, as it leaves only 18 states still using only four-year graduation numbers to track school performance.

       The entire change will add an element of realism to thinking about public and charter schools, an element that might actually improve their public image and that of California as a whole.

    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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