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Federal officials audit California’s rising high school graduation rates

LA Johnson/NPR

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) is probing the calculation and reporting of graduation rates by California education officials.

The office revealed the audit in a report outlining the OIG’s forthcoming work in the 2017 fiscal year.

The report said the office is looking into whether state education officials “have implemented systems of internal control over calculating and reporting graduation rates that are sufficient to ensure that reported graduation rates are accurate and reliable. We are continuing our work at the Alabama State Department of Education and the California State Department of Education.”

News of the audit was first reported by Education Week.

High school graduation rates in California hit 82 percent for the 2014-15 school year, the latest figures available. Nationwide, 83 percent of students reached high school graduation.

California’s rate rose five percentage points over four years, while the U.S. rate rose four percentage points over the same time.

The California Department of Education said the higher graduation rate was the result of increased state spending on schools and the creation of more engaging classes in science, civics, arts, and career technical education.

State officials would not give details of the federal audit.

“We welcome the interest of the Office of the Inspector General into California’s high school graduation rates, which have increased for six consecutive years to a record high,” said department spokesperson Peter Tira in an email.

A spokeswoman for the OIG said the office would not talk about the audit to protect the integrity of the investigation.

The audit comes after previous investigations found problems with states’ reporting of graduation rates, including over-counting of graduates and using reporting methods that didn’t meet federal guidelines.

“I can see why they’d want to investigate the biggest state in the country [to see] if these rates are real and if there’s anything that could be contributing to their rise other than real improvement,” said University of California, Santa Barbara Professor of Education Russell Rumberger.

Few in California know about and scrutinize the state’s graduation and drop-out rates as much as Rumberger.

But Rumberger also said he's puzzled by the audit.

“I know of nothing specific going on and I’ve looked at the data pretty carefully," Rumberger said. "Other than a few districts here and there that had some kind of dramatic changes, I don’t think the increases seem out of line."

One practice that could have generated the scrutiny, he said, is school districts’ use of credit recovery programs that allow students to make up, in an accelerated way, classes they’ve failed. That’s helped some school districts quickly raise their graduation rates and contributed slightly to the state increase, he said.

Rumberger believes that in some cases the quality of credit recovery classes is not as good as the quality of the traditional classes.

However, the focus on how many students graduate, Rumberger said, misses an important part of students’ educational experience that graduation rates don’t capture: the quality of education.

“It’s a pretty low bar because it doesn’t tell you what their grades are and it doesn’t tell you what the content is,” he said.

He’d like to see California issue a separate diploma for students who graduate with a more rigorous set of classes under their belt.

California schools do issue a Golden State Sealfor students who’ve earned As and Bs in academic subjects and have scored well in standardized tests in those subjects.