Around this time every year, I eagerly start following stories about graduation, including graduation rates (data nerd, can’t help myself). I hear about local schools like Lighthouse and McClymonds who are simply knocking it out of the park and helping students defy a too common historical narrative.

Before we start, here’s a primer into the key metric I’ll be looking at: 4-year cohort graduation rates. Imagine tracking all the 9th graders who enter an Oakland high school – what percentage of them will graduate from 12th grade in four years? That’s essentially how 4-year cohort graduation rates are calculated. (This adjusts for variables like subtracting students who transfer out and adding students who join the cohort later in 10th-12th grade.)

Why this new metric matters so much: 4-year cohort graduation rates look at how effective a school/district is at getting their students – regardless of what level they enter high school at – out the school doors, with a diploma, and hopefully ready for college and career (more on this last one in a following blog).


Two Reasons to be Hopeful:

1. Single-site Success Stories: There are some consistently successful high schools (e.g. Life, OSA) and high schools with strong recent progress (e.g. MPA Upper, Arise), but I wanted to highlight McClymonds for their impressive growth. To put into context the amazing feat that the Mack seniors and the supporting community (because it takes a village to raise our children) achieved last June, take a look below at McClymonds’s graduation rates over the past few years. In the space of 7 years, they went from a little over half of students graduating on time to nearly 8 out of 10 students graduating on time, with the dropout rate decreasing by 3 times. Wow!

Figure 1. Cohort Graduation and Dropout rates for McClymonds HS from 2011-18 with every other year displayed. Screenshot courtesy of dashboard created by OUSD Research, Data, and Assessment Department. (Click to dig deeper into the data!)


2. Historical Upward Trend: Increasing citywide cohort graduation rates over the past years show that all major racial groups are showing positive signs of overall improvement from 2009-18, mirroring statewide increases. (This citywide data is for all district and charter schools combined.) This also mirrors a nationwide trends in the graduation rate, which is currently at an all-time high of 83% of students graduating within four years (using the new methodology, see footnote). It’s worth noting how Oakland’s citywide average cohort graduation rate (75% in 2018) still trails the state’s (83% in 2018) and nation’s.

Figure 2. Oakland citywide cohort graduation rates by race from 2009-2018 **(See Footnote)

Caveats to my optimism:

  • 5-year and 6-year cohort rates: Currently, the gold standard is for students to graduate from a high school in four years. The downside of tracking only 4-year cohort rates is that it doesn’t capture the efforts and successes of students who need more time to finish their diploma for a variety of reasons, ranging from personal health issues to recent newcomer status to entering high school severely under-prepared. If a school is able to help those students graduate beyond the original 4-year window, they should be recognized for their efforts through 5-year and 6-year cohort graduation rates.
  • Who’s leaving the cohort? If students don’t graduate on time, they’re either a) still enrolled, which means they’re more on track to graduating, or b) have left school with little chance of graduating (also known as dropout or push-out rates). Our current accountability system is not built to capture the latter by focusing solely on graduation rates. A school with 70% of students graduating and 30% still enrolled differs sharply from a school with 70% of students graduating and 30% dropped/pushed out—but on the CA Dashboard, they would score the same on the 5×5 grid.
  • Not all schools are seeing same levels of progress. I bring up specifically Fremont because that’s the high school I would have gone to. That’s the neighborhood high school my little nieces will attend in 10 years. And if nothing changes and we objectively take the stats, they have just a 50-60% chance of graduating high school on time.
  • The racial gap in our graduation rates has persisted. As we saw in the graph above, African-American and Latinx students still lag behind their White and Asian peers in absolute graduation rates and are not progressing at an increased pace, i.e. closing the racial gap. If we are to close the gap, we must see a strong, accelerated increase in rates of African-American and Latinx students graduating.


As we turn our attention to graduation season, it’s important to celebrate our graduates’ achievements (Class of 2019, I see you!) and look at the numbers deeply to understand how we can get closer to a 100% cohort graduation rate. But equally as important, especially in our technologically fast-paced future, we need to make sure our graduates are prepared to succeed in college and career. More on that in the next post!

** So, prior to 2017, the methodology that California Dept. of Ed (CDE) used to calculate the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) was not consistent with US Dept. of Ed requirements for ESSA reporting. Rather than going back and recalculating the ACGR for 2010-16, the CDE shifted to a new methodology for class of 2017 onwards. This means that the ACGRs for those two different time periods aren’t comparable and CDE strongly recommends against comparing rates from 2010-16 with those 2017 onwards.