LOS ANGELES -- More than eight out of 10 high school seniors in California graduated on time last year, the highest percentage ever statewide, although African-American and Hispanic students lagged behind, state officials said.
The positive trend mirrored national data released Monday and was true in most Bay Area counties, with Alameda County reaching 80.4 percent of students graduating, Santa Clara County 82.9 percent, Contra Costa County 85.8 percent and San Mateo County 88.2 percent -- an increase of 4 percentage points in just one year.
"For the first time in our state's history, more than 80 percent of our students are graduating -- a clear sign of their hard work and the support they receive from their teachers, families and communities," Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said Monday as he released the class of 2013 results.
Torlakson said California school districts have focused on improving graduation rates as part of federal accountability requirements. Better after-school and summer programs, career and technical studies programs that get kids excited about learning, and a push to get English language learners up to speed with reading, have all helped continue the positive trend, he said. The state's graduation data have steadily improved since 2009-10, when California began using a more reliable system to track data. From 2012 to 2013, the statewide graduation rate grew 1.3 percentage points to 80.2 percent, while the dropout rate declined 1.5 percentage points to 11.6 percent.
Although African-American and Hispanic students graduated at lower rates than the state average, those groups marked more rapid improvement than their peers statewide, showing that the achievement gap is narrowing, Torlakson said.
Nearly 70 percent of African-American students graduated, up 1.9 percentage points from 2012. About 75 percent of Hispanic students graduated, up 1.7 percentage points.
Similarly, dropout rates for African-American and Hispanic students were higher than the statewide average of 11.6 percent, but also showed improvement. Just under 20 percent of African-American students and 14 percent of Hispanic students dropped out of school last year, compared with 22 percent and 16 percent the previous year, respectively.
Average dropout rates in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties were below the state average, although some individual districts continued to struggle. Oakland Unified, for example, graduated just 62.7 percent of its students.
In Contra Costa County, Antioch High registered a big improvement with 86.7 percent of its students graduating, up 8 points from the year before.
Superintendent Don Gill credited the district's focus on career-based programs and its commitment to bringing back high school counselors. Students at Antioch High focus on environmental science, engineering and designing a green environment, media arts and technology or social justice. They also get after-school help from teachers and online mentoring from local professionals, such as Dow Chemical engineers, he said.
"The board made a really bold decision right when we were in the depths of the recession," Gill said. "They said, 'We need to bring back our high school counselors. This is one area where we cannot have our students foundering around, trying to figure out what do I need to do to graduate from high school.'"
In Santa Clara County, where East Side Union High School District's rate climbed 1.7 percentage points to just under 82 percent, Superintendent Chris Funk said students took more rigorous classes to qualify for public universities. The district provided online make-up classes and offered technical education.
Nancy Magee, a San Mateo County Office of Education administrator, said the county's improvement followed districts' revamped discipline, focus on math education and work to better prepare and support incoming freshmen.
"We certainly are happy with the improvement," particularly for Latino students, she said, referring to the 7.1 percentage-point climb in the graduation rate to 81.9 percent. The rate for African-American students also increased by 2.9 points, to 74.3 percent, just under the state average.
However, she added, "We have a way to go to close the gaps" in achievement.
Also on Monday, a coalition of advocacy groups and Johns Hopkins University released a report that found graduation rates across the country averaged 80 percent in 2012, in part due to after-school and summer programs, outreach to parents who don't speak English fluently and career-themed programs.
Staff writers Sharon Noguchi, Paul Burgarino and Joyce Tsai and The Associated Press contributed to this story.
State, county, district, and school graduation and dropout rates are available by visiting http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest. Select dropouts and graduates.
More information about the Building a Grad Nation report is available by visiting www.americaspromise.org. Click on "Grad Nation Report confirms 80 percent high school graduation rate, highest in U.S. history."