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REPORT: Many Sonoma high school graduates unprepared for college, careers

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While Sonoma Valley High School has a high graduation rate, the number of graduates who are adequately prepared for college and careers has fallen and student performance continues to lag behind state levels, according to data recently released by the California Department of Education.

A solid 93.4 percent of students graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in the 2017-18 school year, but only 46.1 percent were adequately prepared for college and careers. This represented a decrease of 7.8 percent from the 2016-17 school year, according to Elizabeth Kaufman, a school district official.

“We intend to investigate this thoroughly and determine our plans for improving our scores in this area,” said Kaufman, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

“There are several variables which comprise the college and career readiness indicator and we want to look at each one individually to plan how best to increase our overall preparation of students,” Kaufman said.

This includes “taking a look at our performance in each of the specific measures that combine to determine the (college and career readiness) indicator,” she said.

The education department determines whether a student is ready for college and career based on whether the student has satisfied at least one of a number of measures.

For example, the student could have completed a certain combination of career technical education classes referred to as a “pathway,” such as auto mechanics or food nutrition, with a minimum passing score. Or the student might have made a passing score on the state Advanced Placement exams.

“We will look at course completion in various career technical education pathways to see where completing a pathway may be difficult given a student’s other courses and their availability,” Kaufman said.

Also, “We want to look at AP class participation, test participation and test results to see how to increase the number of students taking the AP tests,” Kaufman said.

The policy director of a national research institute commented favorably on Kaufman’s first approach.

“We want to makes sure high school student are thinking about all their options, considering high-quality career technical education trajectories as well as college,” said Ryan Nunn, policy director of the Hamilton Project at Brookings Institution in Washington D.C.

Nunn cited “Improving college and career outcomes of low-performing high school students,” a paper authored by Louis Jacobson and published by Brookings.

“It’s not just making adjustments in high school. Lou Jacobson talks about starting as early as middle school for improving college readiness,” Nunn said.

The combination of increased high school graduation rates and lack of college readiness is not confined to the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. California’s high school graduation rates increased significantly in recent years, but the percentage of those students who complete their college education continues to lag.

California’s high school graduation rate increased from 77 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2016, according to a February 2018 report from California Competes, “Opportunity Imbalance.”

However, just over half of California’s college students, or 55 percent, get an associate degree at a community college in three years or a bachelor’s degree in six years.

The discrepancy exists nationally as well, according to Jacobson.

“The statistics for Sonoma are pretty standard across the country. It’s hard to believe because people who themselves are well-educated believe everyone is like them and is going to get a good shot at being educated at a four-year institution,” Jacobson said. “The number of students is actually quite low.”

The information about Sonoma Valley Unified student college readiness came from preliminary data released by the state education department to all California public school districts in mid-November.

The data also included some good news regarding suspension rates. While suspension rates in the district were high in the 2016-17 school year, at 5.6 percent, they dropped to 3.6 percent in the 2017-18 school year.

This trend is also reflected in the county and the state. Countywide, suspension rates fell to 4.1 percent last year, compared to 4.6 percent the previous year, according to the state education department. Rates decreased statewide from 3.6 to 3.5 percent.

However, English language arts performance is 24.3 points below standard and math is 64 points below standard in Sonoma, according to the data – low-level performance that has been the case in Sonoma for some time.

All this data and much more will soon be available to the public. The state education department is planning to release the information, possibly as early as this week, via the California School Dashboard, https://www.caschooldashboard.org.

The dashboard is a new tool that debuted last year, replacing the Academic Performance Index, which was based solely on test scores.

The new system reports on such things as academic progress, English learner progress, suspension and graduation rates and students’ readiness for college and careers, as well as English and math test scores for grades three through eight.

Blue is the highest score, green the next highest, then yellow, then orange, then red.

Perhaps one of the most significant elements is that parents, teachers, students themselves and members of the general public can find out whether a school’s score is increasing or decreasing.

Reach Janis Mara at janis.mara@sonomanews.com.