More than eight in 10 public high school students in the class of 2016 graduated on time, California's top education official announced Tuesday, citing higher education funding as a major cause.
Just over 83 percent of the students finished in four years, up about 1 percentage point from the prior year to reach a new high, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said.
He attributed the improvements in large part to more funding for California public schools that has reduced class sizes and expanded arts and science education.
Graduation rates have risen for seven consecutive years, with the biggest increases seen among African-American and Latino students as well as English learners, according to data from the California Department of Education.
However, graduation rates for those groups still lag behind the numbers for white and Asian students.
In 2016, 80 percent of Hispanic or Latino students and less than 73 percent of African-American students graduated on time, compared to 93 percent of Asian students and 88 percent of white students.
About 72 percent of English learners graduated on time. Torlakson said those students have improved the most since last year.
"That's extremely positive to see that growth," he told media gathered at Woodland High School, west of Sacramento. "We've done a lot to concentrate resources where needs are greatest."
He pointed to Woodland High as a model where career readiness programs have helped the school reach a graduation rate of 94 percent.
The state's focus on improving graduation rates and closing the achievement gap between demographic groups has paid off, said Ted Lempert, president of the Oakland-based advocacy group Children Now.
"While there is progress, we really need to be focused on all of our kids," he said, adding that he's particularly alarmed by the graduation rate for foster youth, which is less than 51 percent. "We certainly have a ways to go."
Although it's important for students to graduate from high school, that shouldn't be the only goal, said Nadia Diaz Funn, director of the Los Angeles advocacy group Alliance for A Better Community. Not enough students at Los Angeles public schools qualify for college admission when they graduate, she said.
"Continuing to focus on the annual graduation rate as the ultimate indicator for student success shortchanges the potential of our students," she said in a statement.
The California Department of Education released updated graduation rate data by school, district and county Tuesday.
The federal Education Department is auditing the accuracy of the California Department of Education graduation rates.
Torlakson said he believes the department's method of calculating graduation rate is accurate and indicative of rising student success. He said other indicators, including AP test scores, also show California students are doing well.
"I'm totally confident that the audit will find that we're doing everything right and reporting the data consistently over the years," Torlakson told The Associated Press.
The audit was revealed in November. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education's Office of the Inspector General declined to say what prompted the audit.
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