Last May, San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten announced that 92 percent of the class of 2016 was on track to graduate. Trustees and supporters hailed it as a colossal success for Marten’s administration.

Marten made the new graduation rates the centerpiece of her recent State of the District address.

“We raised standards, we implemented our A-G coursework and our students rose to meet that challenge. Of course, none of this would be possible without our amazing teachers, administrators and classified staff,” Marten said, referring to college-prep curriculum students are now required to complete.

That’s a big part of what made the numbers so remarkable: Not only had the district achieved the highest graduation rate on record – it did it so under far more rigorous standards.

But 92 percent was not the percent of students who began high school as part of the class of 2016. In fact, only 65 percent of the students who started in district-managed schools when they were freshmen stayed in district-managed schools through their senior year.

Rather, the 92 percent graduation rate refers to students who fit a very specific definition.

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

In 2012, the class of 2016 was entering as freshmen and there were more than 11,000 of them districtwide.

By 2016, only 5,918 of students fit the district’s definition of being on track to graduate, the number used to calculate the 92 percent number.

The district excluded thousands of students – like those enrolled in charter schools – from the very beginning. Students who later left for charter schools or moved to other school districts were also excluded along the way.

A high graduation rate signals a thriving public education system. By all appearances, school districts across the nation are improving. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced graduation rates across the nation are at an all-time high – for the fifth straight year.

But do we really understand everything that goes into a graduation rate?

For several months, Voice of San Diego has been trying to understand exactly how San Diego Unified reached its record-setting achievement. District staff members have not accepted repeated requests to meet in person to explain the numbers.

We know the district used a variety of strategies to move kids toward graduation: revamping course schedules so students could take the classes they needed to graduate, expanding summer school and online course offerings and allowing students who speak a second language to test out of the foreign language requirements other students must meet.

But the fact that thousands of students left the district also factored heavily in the district’s graduation rate.

Projected Graduation Rates

In 2011, the school board voted to raise the graduation standards so that each student had to pass a series of college-prep classes, known as A-G coursework, in order to graduate from high school. Those changes took effect last year, so the class of 2016 was the first that had to meet more rigorous standards.

Outside researchers expected a dip in graduation rates. Last March, shortly before the district announced its record-setting numbers, a research team from UCSD predicted the graduation rates would top out at 85 percent. Based on their numbers, about 15 percent of class of 2016 students had more than a year’s work to complete.

Even at that time, though, school board trustee Richard Barrera wasn’t panicked. Based on internal reports, he predicted the rate would be closer to 92 percent.

Then, in May, the results were in: The district said 92 percent of the class of 2016 was on track to graduate.

Here are three numbers to understand about how the district got there.

11,023: The number of students in San Diego Unified who entered ninth grade in 2012.

8,745: The original class of 2016 “cohort,” or students who entered high school at the same time and had to meet the district’s graduation requirements.

5,918: The number of students who met graduation requirements as of May 2016.

Let’s break down how the district started with 8,745 students, ended with 5,918 meeting the graduation requirements and still came away with a projected 92 percent graduation rate.

The first point to understand is that the district is not describing its graduation rate. It’s describing its projected, or estimated, graduation rate.

San Diego Unified graduates students at three different times during the school year. Students can graduate early, in January; they can graduate in June with the bulk of other students or they can graduate in August, after summer school.

If students met graduation requirements at any three of these points this year, they’re included in the class of 2016 grad rate.

In order for grad rates to be official, the district must send them to the California Department of Education after August, which verifies each individual student actually stayed in school and graduated.

The process takes several months. In the spring, officials announce the official graduation rates for the previous year.

In past years, the district’s projected graduation rates have been very close to official graduation rates, which is why the district felt comfortable sending the numbers to news reporters, promoting it on their website and touting it at the State of the District address.

The Case of the Shrinking Cohort

In 2012, the freshman class in San Diego Unified consisted of 11,023 students. But in its analysis of graduation rates, the district factors out a bunch of students from the very beginning. Students who attend charter schools – which have their own graduation requirements – are excluded from the cohort.

Once these students are factored out, we have 8,745 students in the original cohort. As far as the district is concerned, this is the number of students that the class of 2016 started with.

But students continue to move around even after they start high school. According to the district’s numbers, between 2012 and 2016, about 2,650 students transferred to charter schools, moved to a new school district or left the country. And once they left, the district essentially removed them from the equation. Other students started high school elsewhere and moved into the district, and those students were included in the projected graduation rates.

According to the district’s tally, 5,918 out of 6,428 students met graduation requirements or were still enrolled as of May 2016. Thus, it says 92 percent of students from the class of 2016 were on track to graduate.

Where Did the Students Go?

More than 2,600 students left district-managed schools after ninth grade, but the district can’t say for certain where they all went until the graduation rates are vetted by the California Department of Education. It did, however, provide a breakdown to account for the 8,745 students who started in the original cohort.

First, a note about the numbers: This chart reflects the status of students as of May 2016, when the class of 2016 was still enrolled in school.

Importantly, only 5,715 students – or 65 percent of the original 8,745 students who started with the class of 2016 – remained in district schools until May 2016. The final number of students expected to graduate (5,918) is slightly higher, which reflects the number of students who entered high school after their freshman year.


Questions Unanswered

There’s one crucial question that this data cannot answer: How were students doing academically before they left the district for charter schools?

The concern is whether low-performing students transferred to charter schools because they weren’t going to meet the district’s graduation requirements. And if that was the case, the district’s projected graduation rate really wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of how well it prepared kids.

Voice of San Diego asked the district for the grade point averages of the students who left for charter schools. One week later, the district responded that it cannot calculate this number without a public records request.

District spokesperson Jennifer Rodriguez wrote in an email that the district does not have a policy for referring students to charter schools. But if that happened, it wouldn’t be the first time a California school district has cut corners to maintain a high graduation rate.

In 2002, San Jose Unified became the first school district in California to make A-G coursework a requirement for graduation. Based on San Jose’s success, other school districts followed suit and made the A-G coursework a graduation requirement.

Years later, however, it became clear that San Jose Unified had exaggerated its results, counting students who were close to completing the requirements as having done so.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that students who complete a GED and those with special needs who aren’t diploma-bound are excluded from the district’s class of 2016 cohort and from the projected graduation rate. Those students are included in both numbers.

    This article relates to: Corrections, Education, Graduation Rates, Must Reads

    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:

    Terri Novacek
    Terri Novacek

    You're welcome, SDUSD, for helping to improve your grad rate by taking so many of your students who were not on track to finish in your district school. 

    Sincerely, San Diego County Independent Study Charter Schools. 

    richard gibson
    richard gibson subscriber

    Great work Mario! Now, let's examine grad rates as per home income and race.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    For the last 50 years, the High School Graduation Rates across this nation have hovered at about 60%, of the 40% that fell through the cracks, 20% were called drop-outs, and 20% took GED Exams. But what they never told you is that half the kids who did graduate, couldn't pass a 10th-grade level exit exam, and they still got diplomas. That's why this country is in the state that it is in today. I've tried to correct it. I put my faith in Michael McQuary, current President of the Board at SDUSD. We need to do better.

    It looks as though, in spite of my best efforts, the San Diego Unified School District has, once again, moved the goal posts and successfully clouded the issue of Graduation Rates, to avoid accountability. When 40% of students don't graduate, and half of the other 60% can not pass the 10th grade level exit exam (the first three times they take it), we have failing public schools. 

    Those teachers unions that shit all over Charter Schools, that avoid accountability at all costs, they are the responsible parties here. We need to get rid of the Administration, we need to increase competition between educators until we can produce the minds capable of critical thinking that we need for our citizens in the 21st Century democracy. I've seen only one place that does this successfully, High Tech High Charter School.

    The SDUSD should stop playing with the numbers and adopt a HTH system without administrators.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Not sure how the district can distinguish between kids who drop out and kids who move.

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @Sean M CA state law requires new students to state their old school and contact should be made to get transcripts, and other records, too.

    Richard Riehl
    Richard Riehl subscriber

    Very well done, Mario, more evidence of the claim, "Figures lie, and liars figure."

    rhylton subscriber

    I suppose you could call this another October surprise, even though we are in November. I will stop chuckling some time soon.

    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    I thought Cindy Marten was fired long ago for all the corruption VOSD discovered last time around? 

    Great work (again) Mario , apparently math isn't one of those subjects you need to pass in  order to graduate SD Unified. 

    francesca subscriber

    Graduation Rate...seems to be the most important focus for Cindy Marten's tenure, so far.

    When she received a glowing evaluation and contract extension, the school board took turns using the graduating rate as justification for the praise and raise.

    Sounds like it was reported and celebrated prematurely.  The official numbers  won't be announced until Spring of 2017, I think this says.

    Most troubling, your sentence, "District staff members have not accepted repeated requests to meet in person, to explain the numbers."

    Cheryl Hibbeln should be the one to clarify and answer questions.

    Next assignment:  Find out what Francine Maxwell was referring to, when she commented at the last two meetings about the Budget Fiasco..(Comments can be seen, by viewing the 10/25/16 school board meeting, on Youtube...Four minutes into meeting)

    She said there will be a new CFO in early November.  Said the budget didn't balance and the current CFO was reluctant to sign off on it. School board went ahead and voted for the budget...and the CFO left/was asked to leave?  Francine mentioned that the district would be insolvent and there should be an outside audit.  Any there there? 

    DistrictDeeds wordpress com
    DistrictDeeds wordpress com subscriber

    @Scott Lewis @DistrictDeeds wordpress com @MarioKoran Great job of pulling the numbers and this story together Mario!  We came up with similar numbers when preparing  our District Deeds blog post this past May titled “The San Diego Unified Supt. Cindy Marten Diploma Mill Scam-Introduction”

    Since that post, like VOSD, we have been gathering the methods employed from school sites up to the District Office to create the fake graduation numbers touted by Marten. We have found that many District employees have been put in situations by Marten and her cronies to pay more attention to manipulating graduation rates rather than towards a REAL education producing a REAL diploma.

    For proof of the dissonance between the District Propaganda and fact, just check out the overall CAASP scores for SDUSD in 2015 with only 41% of students "met standards" and above with only 37% of 11th graders "met standards' and above.

    We look forward to what you will be uncovering and we hope we can help your investigation with information we are gathering and will be posting.

    Once again…great job...keep it up!

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    There’s an old management axiom in the private sector that goes something like this:  Anyone who is allowed to determine how his/her performance will be measured, do the measuring and report the results will always be Superman.

    rhylton subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw Excellent point. I hope to keep this axiom and others in my mental quivver.

    Todd Maddison
    Todd Maddison

    Hmmm.... I'm an educational system skeptic in many cases, but in this one it really looks like the exclusions from the metrics are pretty valid.

    As with all such metrics if everyone just measured everything (with no exclusions) then we'd all be apples-to-apples, but the resulting data wouldn't be too actionable. 

    Not unless you expect the district to keep people from moving their kids around (which I would be very much against...)

    Scott Lewis
    Scott Lewis moderator administratormember

    @Todd Maddison I don't think we argued the exclusions were not valid. They touted the 92% number for many weeks and took us quite a long time to figure out how they got to that. We found it, simply, interesting that to get to 92% thousands of kids had to go to charter schools and others elsewhere and we don't know how they performed or whether they were on track to graduate. 

    Ed Price
    Ed Price

    @Scott Lewis @Todd Maddison  I think that "on track to graduate" may be overoptimistic, because, as you described, this is the first class that actually has to meet the "more rigorous A-G standards." The administration claims confidence to report graduation rates early, before the testing, based on their previous experience with lesser standards, so last year's experience may not project accurately to this year.

    The number of students who transferred to charter and home schooling are rightfully no longer the responsibility of the public school district; they will be accounted for in the graduation rate of the charter school and/or the responsibility of their parents. BTW, you might be able to get GPA data from some of the charter schools that accept transfer students from the SD district.

    I too am a skeptic of any organization that evaluates its own performance. There are an infinite number of ways to massage the data; for instance, you might manage a 100% graduation rate if the rate was calculated from the number of students who actually graduate divided by the number of student graduate candidates who attended the graduation ceremony. And in that case, commendations and bonuses for all!

    Todd Maddison
    Todd Maddison

    @Ed Price @Scott Lewis @Todd Maddison Sure, "on track" is a projection, all projections eventually run into reality..  Will be interesting to see how the projections meet with reality.

    Always bugs me that it takes so incredibly long for the actuals to be reported (in anything related to school metrics), particularly because it's all electronic these days, but I guess that's how it is...

    In a way, it seems that having graduation rates for charters broken out is a good thing because it allows at least some visibility into comparative performance - although of course the "self-selecting" nature of charter students makes it hard to really consider them as equivalent metrics...

    Michael Russell
    Michael Russell subscriber

    @Ed Price @Scott Lewis @Todd Maddison Charter Schools ARE Public Schools, and must be chartered BY the district, they should be included in the graduation statistics for the district (perhaps with an asterisk*) , especially if they transferred into charters AFTER Middle School (8th grade).

    To allow 46% of the student to fall through the cracks, then claim 92% graduated at higher standards is totally misleading and unacceptable. State law requires that ALL new students registering in a new district inform their old district by requesting transcripts be sent, so, we should be able to track every kid within the state, those who move to other states or nations should be asked to inform the district as well, but in any case should be counted as a number of missing students.

    This is pure game play. They are still only achieving a 60% graduation rate, same as it's ever been, which means that 40% get GEDs or don't ever graduate. This has got big implications now that they are asking for another $3000/student/year.