Using a new system for tracking dropouts, California discloses a rate considerably higher than previously reported. About 1 in 3 students in Los Angeles Unified left school.
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By Mitchell Landsberg and Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
July 17, 2008 - Deploying a long-promised tool to track high school dropouts, the state released numbers Wednesday estimating that 1 in 4 California students -- and 1 in 3 in Los Angeles -- quit school. The rates are considerably higher than previously acknowledged but lower than some independent estimates.
The figures are based on a new statewide tracking system that relies on identification numbers that were issued to California public school students beginning in fall 2006.
The ID numbers allow the state Department of Education to track students who leave one school and enroll in another in California, even if it is in a different district or city. In the past, the inability to accurately track such students gave schools a loophole, allowing them to say that departing students had transferred to another school when, in some cases, they had dropped out.
The new system -- which will cost $33 million over the next three years, in addition to the millions spent for the initial development -- promises to eventually provide a far better way to understand where students go, and why. But state and school district officials acknowledged that the data initially available Wednesday, after a final one-day delay, were limited in usefulness.
"I think as the system stabilizes, you will get better data," said Esther Wong, assistant superintendent for planning, assessment and research in the Los Angeles Unified School District. For now, she said, the numbers tell only part of the story, albeit more accurately than in the past.
Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, presented the new data, based on the 2006-07 school year, as a quantum leap forward in understanding the nature of the dropout problem. But, he said, "no one will argue that the number of dropouts is good news. . . . It represents an enormous loss of potential."
State data analysts were able to come up with a four-year "derived" dropout rate, which estimates how many students drop out over the course of their high school careers.
For the state overall, it was 24.2%, up substantially from the 13.9% calculated for the previous school year using an older, discredited method. Statewide, 67.6% of students graduated and 8.2% were neither graduates nor dropouts. The last category included those who transferred to private schools or left the state.
School districts have until the end of August to correct data, so figures could change.
The statistics highlight a problem that is getting worse in California, said Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara who directs the California Dropout Research Project.
Even using the old system of measurement, he said, the number of dropouts has grown by 83% over five years while the number of high school graduates has gone up only 9%.
"So that's sobering, it's really sobering," he said.
Rumberger attributed the trend to three primary factors: an increase in Latino immigrants, who are among the most likely to drop out; the raising of academic standards; and insufficient funding for public education.
For Los Angeles Unified, the new dropout rate was 33.6%. The rate was 25.3% under the old system in 2005-06.
Critics, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have said that as many as half of Los Angeles Unified students drop out. But a recent report by an independent research group, Policy Analysis for California Education, put the district's dropout rate at 25.7%.
O'Connell chose Birmingham High School in Van Nuys for his announcement, noting that it was the focus of a Times series on dropouts in 2006. He said he was particularly concerned by data showing a dropout rate of 41.6% for black students and 30.3% for Latino students, compared with 15.2% for whites and 10.2% for Asians.
"This is a crisis," he said.
In Los Angeles Unified, African American students dropped out at a lower rate than their counterparts statewide. That was not true of the other three groups.
Among large, comprehensive L.A. high schools, the highest dropout rates were recorded at Jefferson, 58%; Belmont, 56%; Locke, 50.9%; Crenshaw, 50%; and Roosevelt, 49.6%.
Those with the lowest rates were Palisades Charter High, 2.5%; Granada Hills Charter, 6.4%; Canoga Park, 11%; Cleveland, 12.8%; El Camino, 13%; Taft, 13.1%; Chatsworth, 14.5%; and Fairfax, 14.9%.
State officials acknowledge that even the latest figures are less than ideal. The four-year rate is based not on students' actual progress over four years but on one year's worth of data for all four grades. In the spring of 2011, data will be released based on students' actual journey over four years.
Moreover, it remains difficult to say why students left school because codes designed to explain that, listing choices such as "graduated," "died" and "no show," are based on a different time period than the dropout rate itself.
Eventually, the two sets of figures will be synchronized, but the state was unable to do that before the release of the latest dropout figures.
The new system drew accolades even from some critics of the Department of Education.
"Though it has taken far too long and it is only partial progress, we applaud today's advances," said John Affeldt, managing attorney of Public Advocates, which has battled the department in court over the high school exit exam, among other matters.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hailed the data, but said it was important "that we don't just look at numbers."
"It's good information," he said at a briefing for reporters in Sacramento, but "what we need to find out is, what is the reason for the dropouts? . . . We've got to find out what the reason is and then we can work on that to eliminate those problems."
Some of the new dropout numbers are open to misinterpretation. For instance, some continuation schools -- which cater to the most troubled students -- show dropout rates of more than 100%. That is because their enrollment is based on a single date in October, but such schools typically have students who come and go throughout the year, so more students can drop out by June than were enrolled in the fall.
Nevada County, a semirural swatch of Northern California whose schools generally perform well, showed a dropout rate of nearly 77%. The explanation, Associate Supt. Stan Miller said, is that the county charters one of the largest dropout recovery programs in California, with campuses spread throughout the state but reported as if they were in Nevada County.
Even the most successful of such programs have high dropout rates, and the Nevada County program is large enough to outweigh the relatively low dropout rate of the county's own students.
What is inescapable, ultimately, is that the effort to statistically capture the complications of teen life does not lend itself to the simple analysis that a dropout rate suggests.
Susana Garcia, 18, counts as neither a dropout nor a graduate but as a "completer" because she elected to take the general educational development test, or GED, rather than earn a diploma.
"Obviously, people ask you, 'Did you graduate or do you have your diploma or GED?' " she said. "I don't want to be seen as a failure -- or a complete failure." She added: "In my mind, I still want to go back and get the diploma."