The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at email@example.com .
San Diego Unified’s class of 2016 had a record high 91 percent graduation rate, while simultaneously meeting more rigorous requirements.
We spent much of the last year trying to understand how that happened. We found that the number does not include students who left district-managed schools for charter schools . The district used online courses to help kids catch up (and students told us they were easy to cheat).
We also heard from struggling students  that the district had encouraged them to leave for charter schools. Hundreds of students left for charter schools during their high school years. We recently learned many of them had very poor grade point averages .
Now the district is highlighting a new report  from the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UC San Diego. The district suggested that the report disproves much of our reporting. A district press release on the study said, “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 report’s authors, however, made a point to say the research doesn’t disprove anything.
The report follows an earlier study  by the same researchers that looked at the class of 2016 when they entered as freshman and tracked their progress with new, more challenging “college prep” or “A-G” graduation requirements. The last report looked at the class in August 2015, when its members were on the cusp of starting their junior year. At that point, seven out of 10 students were on track to graduate, and the researchers predicted that roughly 72 percent of the class would graduate the following year.
Here’s what the new report found:
• The new standards did indeed mean many students were not on track to graduate come the end of their junior year.
• The district was able to intervene and help a third of those students who were off track.
• Previous worries that only 72 percent of the class of 2016 would meet the requirements proved incorrect. Eighty percent did.
• The district uses state- and federally mandated graduation rate calculations, which do not include students who leave San Diego Unified for charters or other districts.
• The district should better track data related to students who leave for charter schools or other districts.
• There’s no evidence that the new more stringent requirements made the district more likely to counsel students to leave.
• Struggling students were already leaving the district before the class of 2016.
• Cheating in online courses is likely not widespread, but the district should take further precautions to alleviate concerns over cheating.
Let’s further flesh out some of the report’s findings.
The district leaves out students who transfer to charters or out of the district when it calculates graduation rates. That is, in fact, how the state and federal governments require those rates be calculated. But the district should probably start tracking and reporting more information about the students who leave anyway.
The researchers used a different methodology than San Diego Unified does to determine the class of 2016’s outcomes.
The district uses state- and federally mandated graduation rate calculations, which don’t include students who leave the district to go to charter schools or other districts. That’s why the district’s reported graduation rate is 91 percent – because the students who leave the district are cut out of the denominator.
SanDERA’s study looked at the entire group of students from when they were freshmen and sussed out what happened to all of them, which results in different numbers. Thus, the researchers kept those students who left in the denominator, bringing the percentage of students who met the new requirements and graduated down to roughly 80 percent.
Source: San Diego Education Research Alliance
Mario Koran’s reporting found that 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 counted as part of the class of 2016 , the number used to calculate the 91 percent number.
Researchers recommended that the district, in addition to reporting the graduation rate, also report out what percentage of students leave the district and whether they are on track to meet the coursework requirements.
“I think recognizing that there is a different methodology – looking at the cohort – we have to take that into consideration, but [the report] essentially validated many of our efforts in meeting A-G, that there were supports in place,” said Ron Rode, who heads the district’s research and development office.
Only 12 percent of students who left the district in 2015-2016 were on track to meet the new graduation requirements, and the average GPA of students who left was 1.49, more than a full point below the 2.8 GPA of students who stayed, according to the report.
“Keeping track of who is leaving and whether they were on track to meet that goal or not is a really useful thing to do because it tells us how close we were to that goal of having everybody completing that coursework,” said Julian Betts, executive director of the San Diego Education Research Alliance. “It would increase transparency.”
At the end of August 2015, three out of 10 members of the class of 2016 were not on track to meet the new, higher graduation requirements. The district managed to get one out of every three of those students up to speed.
That means 80.3 percent of the class of 2016 students was able to meet the higher requirements and graduate from San Diego Unified. That is higher than the 72 percent researchers predicted in August 2015.
Among the interventions the district used to help give some of those struggling students a boost in the 2015-2016 academic year included allowing students to test out of the foreign-language requirement by passing an exam proving their skills in their native language, expanding summer school and offering online credit recovery courses.
Rode said the district can take some lessons from those interventions in the future. For example, he said, there’s no reason why students shouldn’t be able to test out of foreign-language requirements in ninth or 10th grade if they speak a language other than English at home, rather than waiting until their senior year.
The imposition of more rigorous graduation requirements may not have increased the tendency of district staff pushing struggling students toward charters, but it’s been a long-term trend.
The report looked at the average GPA of students who left for charters for 2011, 2015 and 2016 cohorts. Because the researchers were focused on the district’s new requirements, they wanted to see if those requirements provoked the district to push struggling students to charters.
The average GPA did not significantly change between 2015 and 2016, which, according to the report, suggests that the more rigorous requirements did not make principals, teachers or others counsel struggling students to leave the district more than they had been before. In 2015, students leaving for charters had a GPA of 1.48 in 11th grade and in 2016, that GPA was 1.49. That is far lower than GPAs of the students who stayed, 2.73 in 2015 and 2.8 in 2016.
The students who went to charters from the class of 2011 actually had a much higher average GPA, 2.32, which was closer to the GPA of the students who stayed, 2.88.
That finding is right in line with VOSD’s reporting.
San Diego Unified school board president Richard Barrera told Koran a couple of weeks ago that Superintendent Cindy Marten discovered a pattern  of school staff counseling struggling students to enroll in online credit recovery charter schools years ago.
This discovery is part of what prompted the district to expand its online course offerings  over the past few years in hopes of holding onto those students, Barrera said.
Cheating in online courses is likely not a widespread problem in the district.
Koran sat in during an online course at one school, where he watched students Google answers to a quiz . Teachers and principals at other schools told him they were virtually powerless to stop the cheating .
In 2015-2016, 12 percent of students in the class of 2016 who stayed in the district took at least one online course. That means it was a fairly significant tool for struggling students to help get them up to speed.
The researchers did not observe online course testing, but they mapped out the grade distribution of the online courses for the members of the class of 2016 who took them. The median grade was a C, and one in every nine students received an F. More students received Fs than As. If cheating was rampant, more students would likely have higher grades, the report said.
“The grades are typically quite low, suggesting that students did not necessarily find these courses to be easy,” according to the report.
The report said that while it could neither verify nor dismiss the cheating in online courses reported by VOSD, it recommended that the district take some steps to limit any gaming of online courses, like using an independent proctor for midterms and finals and capping the percentage of final grades in the courses that come from un-proctored assessments that aren’t the midterm or final at 30 percent. Koran seemed to have observed pre-tests or quizzes, the report noted, where cheating may be more common.
“It doesn’t prove there was no gaming whatsoever, for that you really need more observations on the ground,” said Betts. “I think Mario’s articles have raised some concerns in the community about these courses, and we have some ideas for the district to alleviate those.”
Rode said the report’s recommendations are “under consideration.”
The district will have a special committee review the report’s findings and make recommendations, according to a district press release.
Local Ed Stories
• I wrote about issues at a small charter school in City Heights  that predominantly serves Somali refugees. The mess has resulted in multiple complaints against the school from current and former employees and an investigation by San Diego Unified.
• In light of President Donald Trump’s decision to end the DACA program, San Diego schools are doubling down on their assurances to students. San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten sent a letter to parents shortly after the announcement earlier this week, reminding them that children, regardless of immigration staus, have a right to an education in the U.S.  (KPBS)
• San Ysidro’s superintendent has resigned , citing a “personal situation.” Julio Fonseca became superintendent in 2015 and had been accused of both having a romantic relationship with a woman he hired and firing an employee who spoke out about the alleged relationship. (Union-Tribune)
• The Union-Tribune made a slideshow with the county’s 30 top-paid school superintendents .
• CALmatters profiled San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber .
• Hours before proposing an audit of three California districts’ spending under the state’s school funding formula, a state assemblyman pulled the request  in the face of opposition from school management organizations and teachers unions. (EdSource)
More Ed News
• Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced a new approach to Title IX , the federal law that covers sexual assault on college campuses. These rules also impact sexual assault victims  in the K-12 system. (EdWeek)
• Nikole Hannah-Jones, aka the best education reporter in America right now, has a story about an Alabama town’s attempt to secede from its school district  and what that reveals about the delicate state of racial integration in the U.S. (New York Times Magazine)
• The Nation also has a piece on how the Department of Justice is overseeing the resegregation of schools  in America.
• New ACT results show huge achievement gaps . (Washington Post)
• The New York Times looks at what President Donald Trump might do to school lunches .