For the first time in California history, the high school graduation rate has surpassed 80%, mirroring a trend nationwide, officials announced Monday.
Although disparities remain based on students' race, socioeconomic status and English skills, the graduation rates for Latino and African American students are increasing more rapidly than those of their white and Asian peers.
That improvement in last year's graduation rate suggests that the state is succeeding in narrowing its academic achievement gap among racial groups, California education officials said.
Nationwide, the overall graduation rate climbed from 73% in 2006 to 81% in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education.
If that rapid improvement continues, the overall national rate could surpass 90% by 2020, officials said.
The graduation rates were lower for Latino and black students across the country: 76% and 68%, respectively, graduated in 2012. The percentages were roughly the same in California, based on data from 2013.
"We have to be honest that this is a matter of equity and that we have to change the opportunity equation," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "All of America's children are our children."
In Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest school system, the overall graduation rate was 67.9% — an increase of 1.3 percentage points from 2012. For Latinos, the improvement was 1.2 percentage points to 67.2%. For African Americans, it was higher — 2.8 percentage points to 63.7%.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, who has pushed to increase graduation rates, said he was particularly pleased with the results considering the devastating cuts in state funding that occurred while the 2013 graduates were in school.
"These results came at the absolute bottom of all the cuts, and we still saw improvement," Deasy said.
The superintendent attributed the gains to the work of teachers and staff, as well as an effort to steer funding to struggling schools, and investments made in programs geared toward dropout recovery and prevention.
"Considering all the challenges we have in L.A., I'm very pleased and proud," Deasy said.
Although the progress is welcome, some educators and others contend that the state is cheering piecemeal progress while alarming differences in achievement still exist.
"It's good to be optimistic and happy about the incremental success that we've had," said Valerie Cuevas of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based education advocacy group. "But 1 in 4 Latino students are still not graduating from high school — that's a problem."
This year's annual report is the fourth compiled under a system that tracks individual students from the time they enter high school in ninth grade until they are seniors. The calculation does not allow direct comparison with years before 2009, but it is widely believed that the numbers are more accurate.
California's black and Latino students, although lagging behind white and Asian classmates, continued to make slight gains in graduation rates. For Latinos, the improvement was 1.7%; for African Americans, it was 1.9%.
The graduation rate among white students improved one percentage point, to 87.6%. For Asians, the improvement was half a percentage point, to 91.6%.
The positive momentum should continue as the state moves to a new funding system that allocates more money to schools with disadvantaged students, such as those from low-income families and those still learning English, said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.
"There's some good news, but there's a lot of work to do in front of us," he said. "We can — we must — do better to help all our students graduate."
Improvement, particularly within the burgeoning Latino population, must come at a quicker pace if California is to meet job needs and maintain the economic vitality of the state, Cuevas said. The influx of funding should be used strategically to help the most vulnerable within the underperforming groups, such as students who are not fluent in English, Cuevas said.
Among California students learning English, 62.7% graduated with their class, a slight increase, and 21.9% of limited English speakers dropped out, a decrease of 1.6 percentage points.
It is up to local school officials to "maximize resources by using data to help the students with the highest need," Cuevas said. "We need to expedite the closing of that gap."
California officials also released dropout data Monday, showing that the rate declined by 1.5% percentage points to 11.6% for the class of 2013, compared with the class of 2012.
L.A. Unified's dropout rate was 17.3%, down three percentage points. For Latinos, the dropout rate decreased by nearly three percentage points to 17.2%; for African Americans, it fell nearly four points to 20.8%.
Educators say recent improvements in the national high school graduation rate, which rose eight percentage points in six years, have been driven by the closure of so-called dropout factories, typically high-minority schools that graduate less than than 60% of students.
In 2002, those schools enrolled almost half of all African American students; but by 2012, that number had dropped to 23%.
The results underscore the need for more federal funding to ensure that all students are provided with the same opportunities, said Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA.
"We still have many school districts where it looks like apartheid in America," he said. "It's going to require more than the contributions of the private sector and the competitive grants of the federal government."
Times staff writer Lalita Clozel in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times