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State education data shows CA students hit all-time grad high—and SF outpaced them

Two girls sit at a desk wearing masks, one has a mask with a cat design, engaging in a classroom activity.
SFUSD students work on their assignments in San Francisco on June 28, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard | Source: Courtesy 826 Valencia

Two years of remote education and pandemic disruptions took a devastating toll on public schooling in San Francisco, causing a chronic absenteeism crisis, declining enrollment numbers and falling test scores

But new data released by the state education department reflect a city and statewide public education system in flux. Alongside worrying attendance stats are new all-time high graduation rates, favorability scores and school demographic shifts that reflect the changing face of San Francisco and its public school students. 

The California School Dashboard, in its first release since 2019, collects a range of data to measure student progress and achievement at schools across the state. Results from this study give a window into socioeconomic factors and local climates to determine which schools and districts need extra state and federal assistance. 

Here’s how San Francisco Unified School District and its 49,204 students fared in the 2021-22 school year: 

Principal Malea Mouton-Fuentes greets students on the first day of school at Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School in San Francisco on Aug. 17, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Graduations Jump, Demographics Shift

Graduation rates hit all-time highs in California, and San Francisco Unified was no exception. 

About 88% of SF public schoolers—roughly 4,200 students—completed high school in four years, outpacing the statewide graduation rate by a few percentage points. The four-year rates were lower for certain demographic groups, including English learners, foster youth and homeless students. 

Statewide graduation rates saw a boost from roughly 84% in 2020-21 to 87% in the last year. This is likely due to legislation allowing accommodations in response to difficulties in determining grades presented by the early months of the pandemic, the California Department of Education said.  

National test scores released last month also showed that even as math and English proficiency scores dipped among SFUSD students, SF’s public schools outpaced state averages. California also reported a smaller drop in math and reading scores than other states. 

These findings might surprise those who expected pandemic learning to have disastrous impacts on graduation rates and testing, as it did on absenteeism and attendance rates in SFUSD. 

Attendance Struggles 

Chronic absenteeism in SFUSD more than doubled from pre-pandemic levels to 29%, according to the new state data. Students are considered chronically absent when they miss 10% of the school year. 

SF’s absenteeism mirrored trends nationally and statewide, with California jumping from 14% in 2020-21 to 30% in the 2021-22 school years.

Attendance plummeted during Covid surges in September 2021 and January 2022, SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said—a trend continuing this year. The current outbreak has contributed to roughly 38% of the SFUSD students missing at least one day of school during the first two weeks of December—up from 29% last year, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Student Demographics and Wellbeing

Test scores and attendance rates paint a clear picture of student academic performance, yet the state’s updated dashboard provides important insight into campus climate and emotional learning environments at SF public schools. 

Though math and English test scores dropped slightly during remote learning, the emotional and mental well-being of many students improved. 

When campuses were closed for the pandemic in 2020-21, more students reported a sense of safety and belonging, and academic support spiked, as well. Those numbers dipped back to pre-pandemic levels in 2022. 

Students attend class on the first day of school at John O’Connell High School in San Francisco on Aug. 17, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

Meanwhile, it seems that most SFUSD students have interpersonal challenges. Just 45% percent of high schoolers and a third of their middle school counterparts agreed with the statement “students from this school treat other students with respect.”

Their sense of belonging remained somewhat stable through the pandemic, with most students across grade levels reporting a positive school experience.