The new dropout number, 20.1 percent, is an extrapolation of reports from schools, rather than hard computerized data, which won't be available for several more years.
By Dan Walters | Sacramento Bee Columnist
May. 13, 2009 -- Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of schools, released the new high school dropout rate Tuesday, declaring it to be "a very slight improvement" over the previous year.
The new number, however, merely provides new grist for the never-ending debate over how well – or how poorly – our schools are performing their basic function of getting kids through 12 years of education with a meaningful diploma in their hands.
O'Connell acknowledged that the new dropout number, 20.1 percent, is an extrapolation of reports from schools, rather than hard computerized data, which won't be available for several more years. And it's markedly lower than the numbers generated by outside researchers and critics.
A Harvard University study a few years ago, for instance, found that 29 percent of California's high schoolers fail to graduate. Alan Bonsteel of California Parents for Educational Choice, a persistent critic of the state's methodology, puts the current number at 29.3 percent and says it rises above one-third when middle-school dropouts are included.
The situation in the immense Los Angeles Unified School District, which handles more than 10 percent of the state's 6 million K-12 students, illustrates the uncertainty.
The California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tabbed L.A. Unified's dropout rate at more than 50 percent, but the district paid for its own research last year and claimed it was under 26 percent – a few days before O'Connell's department placed it at 33.6 percent, a number later revised to 31.7 percent. The new state data placed LAUSD's dropout rate at 34.7 percent.
Authorities generally agree that 65 percent to 70 percent of California's ninth-graders obtain diplomas three years later (the new state figure is 68.3 percent) and at least 20 percent of them are dropouts. The debate is what happens to the other 10 percent to 15 percent.
Some clearly obtain diplomas or their equivalent later, a few die and some transfer to private schools or those in other states, but the full picture is still cloudy.
There's also broad agreement that the dropout problem, whatever its true dimensions, is concentrated in a relative handful of the state's 2,000-plus high schools. UC Santa Barbara researchers say 100 high schools, most of them in Los Angeles and other urban centers, account for 40 percent of dropouts.
Finally, we know that there are huge ethnic and racial differences, what O'Connell calls the "achievement gap." The state's new data peg the Asian American dropout rate at about 9 percent, with Filipinos at 10.6 percent, whites at 13.3 percent, Pacific Islanders at 24.8 percent, Latinos at 26.7 percent, Native Americans at 28.1 percent and African Americans at 35.8 percent.
What we don't know is what to do about the dropout rate, whatever it may be, especially since the state is mired in a perpetual budget crisis and is looking at reducing state school aid even more.