New way of counting dropouts

There’s not much new in the latest graduation and drop-out rates released yesterday by the California Department of Education (CDE), except for the way they were computed.

For the first time since the student data system, known as CALPADS, went online, California has been able to track each student who entered ninth grade in the 2006-07 school year throughout high school using individual identifiers assigned to each child on the first day of kindergarten.

Nearly three-quarters of the class of 2010 graduated – 74.4 percent to be precise – and 18.2 percent dropped out.  (We’ll get to the missing 7.4 percent shortly).

According to the CDE, the graduation rate is about four points higher than the 2009-10 academic year, but the Department also cautions not to make comparisons because of the change in calculations.

This year also marks a first for including dropout rates for middle school students, and state officials don’t like what they see. Nearly 4,200 students dropped out during eighth grade and another 13,067 left school after graduating from middle school. These are 14- and 15-year-olds. A 2007 law requires districts to incorporate those numbers into the 2011 base API to be released next spring.

“Our research shows that chronic absence from school even as early as kindergarten is a strong indicator of whether a child will drop out of school later,” said State Superintendent Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “Clearly we need to invest more in programs designed to keep elementary and middle school students in school.”

Little movement on closing the gap

The numbers are also bleak for Hispanic and African American students. More than 30 percent of African American students dropped out of high school and 59 percent graduated. There was an increase in the graduation rate for Hispanics, with about 4,700 more graduates last year than the year before, but the total is still just 67.7 percent. Compare that with Asians, 89.4 percent, and white students, 83.4 percent, and the gap is significant.

Some individual districts, however, are models of success for raising graduation rates. In Long Beach Unified School District, the third

Graduation and drop-out rates by race and ethnicity for Long Beach Unified School District. (California Department of Education). Click to enlarge.
Graduation and dropout rates by race and ethnicity for Long Beach Unified School District (California Department of Education). Click to enlarge.

largest district in the state, nearly 75 percent of Hispanic students graduated last year, along with more than 73 percent of African American students. The dropout rate for African Americans there is about 40 percent below the state average.

The district has been a leader in using test data to provide differentiated instruction to students, has strong career technical programs integrated into academics, and will open a credit recovery high school next year to try to keep students who need just a few more credits from giving up.

“We know we can do more and we have a number of plans,” said district spokesman Chris Eftychiou.  “So we’re not complacent about these results, as encouraging as they are for Long Beach.”

Missing information could be more interesting

No one may have been waiting for this new data more than U.C. Santa Barbara Education Professor Russell Rumberger, who founded the California Dropout Research Project.

“I would characterize this as a good first step in better information about graduates and dropouts, but there are still some additional questions we’d like to get answered,” said Rumberger.

He’s particularly interested in knowing how many students were excluded from the statistics and why. Districts can remove students who fall into one of ten categories, including transferring to a private school, moving out of state or out of the country, dying, enrolling in an adult education program, and being home schooled. These students aren’t included as dropouts or graduates; they’re pulled from the cohort.

Some alternative programs also aren’t included. GEDs are listed separately in the state data, as are special education students who earn a certificate of completion.

With all the high school alternatives today, Rumberger said it would be helpful to know how many of the excluded students went into one of those programs and earned a diploma. Conversely, he wants to know how many students included in the data transferred into a California public school after the initial ninth grade cohort was identified.

The answers that Rumberger is seeking are available in CALPADS, but weren’t released. Karl Scheff, administrator of the educational demographics office, said he didn’t think anyone wanted that information.

Scheff says he also is not sure if the CDE will add a fifth and sixth year to the cohort to follow up on students who needed more than four years to graduate. Those 34,086 students make up most of that 7.4 percent difference between graduation and dropout rates.

To Rumberger, who has focused so much of his research on getting to the root causes of the dropout crisis in order to inform public policy, those details are essential.

“We don’t want to underestimate graduation even if it doesn’t happen in the traditional system.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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