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Federal Audit: California Miscalculated Its Graduation Rate

Graduation caps are thrown in the air, May 17, 2009.

Credit: Shilad Sen / Flickr

Above: Graduation caps are thrown in the air, May 17, 2009.

California miscalculated its graduation rate for the 2013-14 school year, according to a federal audit released Wednesday.

Auditors say California improperly removed 10,543 students from its calculation, boosting its graduation rate from 79 percent to 81 percent.

The majority of students who should have remained in the calculation — 9,866 — left their high schools to earn alternative diplomas through adult education programs. Under federal regulations, that means their high school did not successfully get them across the finish line to earn a traditional diploma and should factor them into its accountability reporting.

Schools can only remove students from the calculation if they have documentation that they transferred to another high school, left the country or died.

It’s unclear whether any San Diego-area graduation rates contained errors. The audit relied on California Department of Education data and sample data from districts in the Los Angeles region.

State officials responded to the audit, saying the findings don’t necessarily equate with nefarious wrongdoing. Even if the state lacks documentation for a transfer, for example, that student may have been properly handled in the math. It also pointed out that federal and state regulations are different — unlike the feds, California considers diplomas earned through adult education programs the same as those earned at a high school.

Auditors recommended the state improve oversight of local districts when it comes to reporting graduation rates, review past rates and better communicate federal guidelines to districts.

“CDE agrees that it is important to ensure superintendents fully understand what it means to ‘certify’ data, and that it increases overall data quality,” Michelle Zumot, the state’s chief deputy superintendent of public instruction, said in a response to the audit.

The feds began looking into California’s graduation rate because it had the largest discrepancy of all states between state data and what school districts reported.

Auditors also found errors in Alabama’s reporting and is reviewing graduation rates in Utah.

News of the audits came in late 2016, as the state and San Diego Unified announced record graduation rates and a substantial narrowing of the achievement gap during the 2016-17 school year.

RELATED: San Diego Unified Has Always Lost Seniors; Here’s How It Plans To Keep Them

San Diego Unified’s 91.2 percent graduation rate got a once-over from UC San Diego researcher Julian Betts, who reviewed data provided by the district and found no errors. But he and Voice of San Diego detailed a pattern in which low-performing students transferred out of district schools. The district complied with state and federal regulations by removing those students from their calculations.

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