New dropout rate in question

The state Department of Education reported a sizable uptick in the dropout rate this week, leading to speculation that school budget cuts, the high school exit exam, or – choose your speculation – was to blame. But there was enough noise in the data to call into question the validity of the increase, let alone the cause behind it. And Russell Rumberger, an education professor at UC Santa Barbara and the state’s foremost authority on the dropout rate, says he doesn’t get too excited about one-year fluctuations anyway.

Already disturbingly high, especially for minorities, the latest four-year adjusted high school dropout rate, for 2008-09, is 21.7 percent, a full 2.8 percentage points above the 18.9 percent in 2007-08. The rate for Hispanics and African Americans also rose proportionally, to 26.9 percent and 36.9 percent respectively.

This is the third year that districts have used individual student identifier numbers, an integral part of the state’s longitudinal data system, to more accurately track where students go when they leave school. No longer willing to accept assumptions that students have transferred to other districts or to take relatives’ word on what students are up to, the state required districts to verify whether students  enrolled in adult education or a continuation school – or else the default assumption was that they dropped out.

This change, which held districts and schools accountable for the data, led to a bump in the dropout rate two years ago, from 16.8 percent to 21.1 percent.

But this year was the first year that districts reported the data through CALPADS, the troubled database system that gave district personnel fits. Because of software problems, the state delayed the CALPADS deployment date by nearly a year when districts had to upload the data for 2008-09 needed to determine the dropout rate.  According to Keric Ashley, director of the Department of Education’s Data Management Division, about a quarter of the state’s districts then missed the initial deadline for submitting the data. They then had a week – instead of months – to correct the dropout report that the state sent back to them. That left districts like San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest district, no time to track down 1,300 “lost transfers” that the state had classified as dropouts.

San Diego’s dropout rate rose from 9.2 percent to 23.5 percent. The Contra Costa Times reported that the state assigned a 99 percent dropout rate to Dublin Unified; clearly something was screwy. There may have been enough instances like these to account for the variation from last year, Ashley acknowledged.

Next year’s dropout rate, for 2009-10,  will be the one to watch – and should be out in May, assuming CALPADS is back up and running. It will use methodology required by the federal government, tracking four years of a cohort of students through their student identifiers. And it will also significantly change how the rates are calculated.

Under the current system, the state bases enrollment on a specific date in October. That tends to inflate the dropout rate, according to Rumberger, because it misses students who come in and out of school throughout the year. The new cumulative rate will pick up students who enroll at continuation schools, community day schools for at risk students, juvenile halls and county programs throughout the year and should significantly lower the dropout rates in these institutions (see a brief that Rumberger wrote on this earlier this year).

Meanwhile, some district officials are scratching their heads over the latest numbers. Last week, I wrote about Stockton’s nationally acclaimed effort to dramatically cut its 4-year dropout rate from 54 percent to 17.7 percent in 2007-08, less than the state average. Well, the dropout rate shot up again to 34.8 percent in 2008-09, according to the state.

Districts officials insist that the latest report is inaccurate, and told the Stockton Daily Record they would retrace students whom the state labeled as dropouts. They assumed the rate went up some, but not nearly that much.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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