Every year, the California Department of Education and many of its school districts boast about record-high graduation rates.
But a federal audit raises questions about the accuracy of the local and statewide numbers.
The report by the U.S. Education Department's Office of Inspector General, released Wednesday, looked at samples of graduation-rate data from the class of 2013-14 and found that quality control was lacking in self-reporting by school districts.
California's "system of internal control did not provide reasonable assurance that reported graduation rates were accurate and complete," the report said.
State education officials also did not calculate graduation rates "in accordance with federal requirements," auditors found.
Among the graduates, California officials incorrectly counted students who "transferred to programs that did not lead to a regular high school diploma." Leaving them out, auditors said, would lower the state's graduation rate by about 2 percentage points.
"It doesn't strike me that what was found was malfeasance," said UCLA education professor John Rogers. "In a system where there's high stakes attached to any information, there's always going to be pressure to shape that information…. Every local actor is going to try to present their graduation rate in as favorable a way as possible."
Graduation rates are a crucial indicator not just of school progress but of equity, said Tyrone Howard, a UCLA education professor and director of the school's Black Male Institute. "If the numbers aren't as reliable as they say," he asked, "are there fewer … African American and Latino students graduating than what they're reporting?"
State officials said federal auditors failed to understand California rules.
"Some of these areas of disagreement stem from differences in federal and state law and in a misunderstanding of how California collects and processes data," state Education Department spokesman Bill Ainsworth said in a statement. "California considers an adult education high school diploma as a standard high school diploma. Federal guidelines do not allow for alternative diplomas."
The federal government audited California because it had the largest gap of all states between the overall number of graduates reported by the state and the numbers reported by school districts. Auditors looked closely at how graduation rates were calculated for samples of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Los Angeles County Office of Education and a charter school in Baldwin Park.
They found that the state "did not have controls in place to oversee or monitor" graduation data and that state officials didn't make sure local information was accurate or that all students counted met graduation requirements.
Though the state requires local administrators to check numbers twice for accuracy, the charter school, district and county office in L.A. used the same people to do both checks, which auditors described as a "conflicting role." They also pointed out that districts "did not have a formal process" for verifying accuracy and that state officials didn't check to see whether they had data management teams.
L.A. Unified officials do not dispute the report's methods or conclusions.
"We are definitely ready to implement any recommendation that is provided to us by the state," said Oscar Lafarga, executive director of the district's Office of Data and Accountability. He said the district is working to improve the way it tracks graduates.
State officials, auditors found, didn't always pick up on inaccuracies, including some students who were classified as graduates without completing graduation requirements.
In L.A. Unified, out of a graduating class of 27,122, the auditors looked closely at a sample of 45 students and found that five were incorrectly counted as graduates.
California officials contend that auditors extrapolated too broadly from the samples they studied. They said that federal law doesn't require two layers of certification and that they like to give local school districts authority over how they run their own educational systems. But they also said they would work to make sure those reporting graduates understood the regulations.
Ryan Smith, executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based nonprofit that advocates for educational equity, said he thinks the state's response to the audit is problematic.
"If we're going to move the needle for students, we have to ensure that data quality is good," he said. "It just seems ironic that the state would in one breath celebrate graduation rate increases and in another breath say, 'It's not our responsibility to monitor data quality.' "