In March, Julian Betts, a researcher from UCSD who had calculated the number of San Diego Unified students on track to graduate this year, said the district would need “a miracle” to raise its graduation rate to 90 percent.

A miracle is what the district must have gotten, because it’s about to pull it off.

Learning Curve-sq-01This week, the San Diego Unified predicted that the graduation rate for the class of 2016 is on track come in around 92 percent – an all-time high.

What’s more, they’ve done it under tougher new graduation requirements that better align with college entrance requirements: The graduating class of 2016 will have taken a series of 15 yearlong college prep courses, known as A-G classes, which students need in order to get into UC and CSU schools.

The new graduation requirements aren’t radically different from the old ones. But they require two years of the same foreign language, which is new, and three years of math, one of which must be intermediate Algebra or its Common Core equivalent. Those two courses, along with English, have become the three biggest sticking points for the class of 2016, according to  the study Betts and UCSD researchers put together.

Based on his numbers – which included student data up to August 2015 – about 15 percent of class of 2016 students had more than a year’s work to complete. At best, about 85 percent of students would graduate this year, he predicted.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Betts wasn’t the only one who anticipated a drop. Early on, even the district’s own data made a 90 percent grad rate look distant.

In October 2014, just 59 percent of the class of 2016 was on track to graduate under the new requirements. This October, 75 percent of that class was on track. By May, it’s 92 percent.

The board first adopted an “A-G for all policy” back in 2009, after social justice advocates highlighted the fact that too many students were unprepared for college because their high schools didn’t give them access to all the college-going classes they needed.

But, as Evans pointed out at this week’s board meeting, the work began in earnest only two or three years ago.

That’s what makes the district’s grad rate seemed so remarkable: It all happened so fast.

And we’re talking about huge jumps at the individual high school level.

In 2014, less than 30 percent of Lincoln’s students were on track to graduate under the new requirements. This year it’s 89 percent.

It’s a similar story at Morse, where 53 percent of students were on track in 2014. Now, 99 percent of Morse students are on track to graduate.

That kind of turnaround would be remarkable for one high school. San Diego Unified was able to do it at a half-dozen.

In his study, Betts warned the situation was most concerning for students who were more than a year behind in multiple subjects:

“Ten percent of students, or about a third of those we project to be off track, had at least three such subjects. Because it is very difficult to complete more than two semester courses in the same subject area in one year, students who must do this for multiple A-G subjects are unlikely to graduate in June 2016, and may be unable to graduate even if they attend summer school in 2016.”

To put it more simply, it looked unlikely, if not impossible, for a good number of students to make up remaining credits by August 2016. But yet, here we are – at an all-time high.

So how does the district explain such a fast and drastic change?

Evans was right – the board first issued an A-G policy in 2009, but neither district staffers nor school board members made much progress actually implementing changes until around 2014, when Superintendent Cindy Marten promoted Cheryl Hibbeln from high school principal to high school resources officer.

It’s a vague title, but Hibbeln and her team played a critical role in the district’s progress.

“We literally have been tracking kids, student by student, school by school, and watching exactly what’s been happening,” she said at this week’s board meeting.

Hibbeln worked with high schools to make sure they offered classes that counted for graduation, and eliminated those that didn’t. “Unifying Algebra,” for example, a watered-down math course that didn’t count toward graduation, was finally tossed away.

The district also placed additional counselors at schools where a high percentage of kids were off track. And they looked for additional ways to offer students credit. That might mean a student takes a full load of classes during the day, and on the side, retakes a class they previously failed using an online course.

This year, San Diego Unified students completed 2,634 remedial courses online, at an 82 percent pass rate.

The general rule of thumb is that an entire course takes roughly 60 hours, said district spokeswoman Linda Zintz, or an hour a day for 12 weeks. Students are allowed to take as long as they need to finish.

It doesn’t have to take 12 weeks, though. The online credit recovery course allows students to pass over the things they’ve mastered and jump right to areas in which they’ve struggled with in the past.

So this one is reason why some students have been able to make up more than a year’s work in less than a year’s time.

But the numbers also got a big boost from a seemingly simple change. For the class of 2016, one of the biggest sticking points was the two-year foreign language requirement. District officials questioned the logic of requiring this for English-learning students – who, by definition, already know a foreign language.

So the district started offering more multilingual students the chance to test out of the requirement. This year, 952 students passed the test – four times more than last year.

That alone had a big impact on the numbers. It allowed English-learners the chance to both check off the requirement and take other college-going classes with the time they’d otherwise spend learning a third foreign language.

And, in fact, district officials say that part of the reason the jump in graduation rates looks so big is because those students, as well as the students who earned credits this year, are all factored into the most recent numbers. Previous calculations, including the data from Beatts and UCSD researchers, did not include those students.

In other words, previous graduation projections looked worse because a lot of students started slow but made up credits in their final years of high school.

Betts’ numbers weren’t wrong, but they did not include the credits students earned this year.

It’s worth pointing out that these graduation rates aren’t final. Official graduation rates aren’t ready until well after August, when the final grades for the school year come in. But in the past, projections that San Diego Unified has made at this point in the year have been pretty accurate.

So at this point, if the district is predicting an all-time high, the chances are good they’ll get there. They won’t even need a miracle.

Of course, this all comes with a few caveats. Here are a couple things that the numbers don’t show.

Students Passing With Ds

When the San Diego Unified school board first passed the A-G policy, they wrestled with whether to let students pass with Ds.

For classes to count for UC and CSU schools, students need a C or better in A-G classes.

But the school board feared that if they set the bar too high, too many students would fail or drop out.

That’s exactly what happened to Los Angeles Unified, which adopted a similar policy around the same time, but decided students needed Cs in order to graduate. Last June, the Los Angeles Unified School Board members changed their minds, and eased the graduation requirements.

In the end, the San Diego Unified board decided that it was more important to give students access to college-going classes than it was to require a C. Here, A-G credits count, so long as the student gets a D and has an overall GPA of 2.0.

At the moment, we don’t know how many students are passing with Ds. Hibbeln said she’ll have a better idea after June.

Grade Inflation

A 2013 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, warned that an unintended consequence of the higher standards might be that students who’d otherwise fail could have their grades bumped to Ds.

This could help protect graduation rates, but it could also cause bigger problems. If students are allowed to take intermediate or advanced courses without mastering the basics, they could become frustrated and create a distraction to other students in class, the report warned.

There’s nothing to suggest grade inflation is behind the current rise, though Hibbeln once said it’s happened before in the district, and something educators have to be mindful of.

How Individual Schools Made Such Monster Gains

Students are resilient and capable and bright. But a school with a 99 percent graduation rate is an impressive feat under any circumstance, in any district.

It’s difficult to grasp how that turnaround was possible without hearing the story of every school, and that’s something these numbers can’t show.

Who’s Still Struggling

An all-time high grad rate is nothing to scoff at, but the numbers we’ve seen don’t break down which students are still falling behind, and at which schools. In 2014, only 9 percent of English-learners were on track to graduate. A year later, it was 28 percent. We can’t see from the numbers how many of those students will make it. That’s just one example.

Credit Recovery

As last school year came to a close, and the nation was on track to an all-time high graduation rate of 81 percent – NPR assigned education reporters to find out why.

The team discovered a range of things – from innovative practices to questionable quick-fixes – all played into the nation’s rising grad rate.

School officials in Chicago, for example, weren’t properly tracking students who transferred to GED programs, thus, not properly factoring them into graduation rates.

In Michigan, a reporter visited one Detroit school where a third of students were doing credit recovery. Students told reporters they liked the flexibility online courses provide and that they’re typically easier than traditional courses.

That’s not to say San Diego Unified offers watery online credit-recovery courses. Its online courses are approved for A-G, so they’ve been vetted and approved for rigor.

But even though credit recovery is incredibly common – most districts offer some form of it – there hasn’t been a lot of research on credit recovery courses, and how well they’re done.

In other words, the quality of online courses will depend in large part on the rigor and organization of the class, and, here again, this is something the district’s recent numbers can’t show us.

    This article relates to: Education, School Leadership, The Learning Curve

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Lou Dodge
    Lou Dodge subscriber

    You also may want to check if charter school stats are included in graduation rates since some of those extra counselors who are hired are diligently 'weeding out' students who are behind in credits and sending them to charters where they may or may not be graduating either.  the percentage of those who are left at the school and who are graduating goes up but enrollment slips

    francesca subscriber

    Easing standards and grade inflation....that sounds like the answer to our Lake Wobegon results...with all the children above average...

    EASING STANDARDS:  Not requiring a C grade, as was the case before ...but giving course credit for a D. 

    This means the student would not be given credit at UC or CSU campuses. 

    GRADE INFLATION: ...Sounds like there is pressure on teachers, not to fail a student, but to give a D grade, just to make Cheryl Hibbeln and Dr. Marten look good.  How objective are the course tests and grading? 

    Since only about 30% of the population graduate from college, what will become of these students, who have no work skills or training, once they spend a semester or two in college?

    To quote Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies...Lies, damn lies and statistics."

    David Lynn
    David Lynn subscribermember

    The use of online courses is fascinating, and likely related to the concept presented by @EducatedMom.  What's the definition of a course, and who sets that?  If an online course counts for credits and includes the ability to test out, how much of high school could a student test out of?

    Is there a chance we're seeing a glimpse of the future of education, and SDUSD is acknowledging that many instructional methods are outdated?  If not, then it would seem there's some acceptance that graduation is more important than learning.

    rhylton subscriber

    VOSD reports "An all-time high grad rate is nothing to scoff at, but the numbers we’ve seen don’t break down which students are still falling behind." 

    I ask, why does VOSD not ask for the breakdown? Investigative reporting?

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    One thing you didn't mention (and apparently Betts was unaware) is that many of the schools that had the lowest "on track to graduate" rates were also schools that offered a 4x4 schedule.  Unlike a traditional, 6-period schedule, where a student takes the same 6 classes for two semesters throughout the year, in a 4x4 schedule, students cover a year's coursework for four classes in one semester.  This allows students at these schools to complete 8 classes in a year (or one could finish two years of consecutive coursework in a single subject in a year, over the two semesters).  This gives students more opportunity for credit recovery or to catch up if they are behind in a specific sequence.  (A "rotating 8" schedule of 8 classes doesn't offer consecutive courses in a single year, but does offer the ability for students to take more courses in a single year than if they had only 6 periods.)

    Not that I'm advocating for all schools to switch to a 4x4 schedule, which has some concerns that have not been explored for their impacts on student learning.  For example, the actual number of instructional minutes of a given class are fewer in a 4x4 schedule than it is with 6 periods.  The instruction in subjects in a 4x4 schedule can be non-contiguous (e.g. one could take a math class in the fall semester one year, then not have a math class again until fall the following year, allowing for attrition of subject content knowledge).  How are AP courses taught (in the first semester, leaving 3+ months of no instruction before the exam; or in the second semester, leaving just 13-14 weeks of instruction before the exam), and does this impact the passage rates of students taking the AP exams?

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    I think this is great if it actually is a fair representation of the District. But I  believe it is totally impossible. Either the students were given higher grades than they earned, the standard was lowered or lower ranked (not passing) students were excluded or some other way was found to have these numbers. There are many excellent teachers and administrators working on increasing graduation rates but so much of the success must go to the students who many don't seem to care about college or grades.