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.
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.
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.