New dropout rates may be accurate but tell you little and could get worse

State-level school graduation and dropout statistics have always been squishy, and the most recent numbers, from California’s Department of Education, are not immune to some of the familiar problems.

While far more accurate and reliable than anything we’ve had before, they can’t capture all the uncertainties of student mobility or cut through all the fog of educational definitions. Nor do they tell anything about the quality of the education those students have gotten, another area where there’s lots of numbers and even more fog. And of course, they say nothing directly about the shabby support their schools have been getting from the state or the voters; they only reflect it dimly and indirectly.

The latest numbers, from CALPADS, the new California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, are similar to what we’ve had before: Roughly 74 percent of students who started ninth grade in 2006 graduated four years later, in 2010; 18 percent dropped out. The balance – some 8 percent – is said to include students who are still in school, non-degree special-ed students and those who passed their GED, the General Educational Development tests.  Girls graduated at a higher rate than boys.

And of course, there’s no telling how many more of those listed as dropouts will get their GED or some other form of education or training, either here or elsewhere, that may never be recorded by the state’s data system.

Nonetheless, a lot of people are cheering that the new system is working. For years CALPADS, which is based on individual student identifiers and thus can track students from school to school, was beset by both technical problems and political resistance from two governors. That it’s now up and running is itself an achievement.

As was predictable, the new numbers show the familiar ethnic gaps. Blacks and Latinos graduate at significantly lower rates and drop out in greater proportions than non-Hispanic whites and Asians, who have the best numbers of any ethnic groups – 89 percent of Asians graduated with their class; only 8 percent dropped out. For whites, the comparable numbers are 83 percent and 12 percent.

Some 59 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Latinos graduated within four years; among blacks 30 percent dropped out, and among Latinos it’s 23 percent. If English learners aren’t counted, the Latino graduation rate rises to 75 percent. But none of it is anything to cheer about – except maybe next year in hindsight, when we get the 2011 numbers, which may well be worse.

What may be most notable in these numbers, however, and certainly most significant, is that just one third of the graduates are non-Hispanic whites; Latinos make up over 41 percent, Asians another 10 percent. This is our economic future and the real challenge to our education system.

The remarks of state school superintendent Tom Torlakson were as predictable as the numbers. “Sadly,” said he in his department’s handout, “the graduation rates of these subgroups of students are too low and their dropout rates are too high.” He’s right, of course, but other than issuing pronouncements, there’s not much he can do.

On the other side of the fence, you can probably expect the voucher crowd, the charter school boosters and the other privatizers to seize on the numbers to show how the system isn’t serving what used to be called minorities, or maybe anybody.  The fact that, according to the state, some 17,000 eighth grade students (of some 470,000) , roughly 3.6 percent, dropped out in 2008-9 before they even got to ninth grade, doesn’t make the picture any brighter.

But the dropout numbers are tricky; while other states now have individual student tracking systems similar to CALPADS and thus should pick up interstate transfers, there’s often no way to track immigrant students who’ve moved back to their home countries.

In the past four years, a million illegal aliens have left the country, some because of tougher immigration law enforcement, some because of the recession. Unless their new schools – Mexican or Salvadoran or Honduran – ask for their American school records, no data system records what’s happened to the children they’ve taken back with them.

CALPADS also reports a 56 percent graduation rate for students classified as English learners, which on its face sounds impossible. How can someone classified as an English learner complete high school? The answer, according to state officials, is that an English learner is anyone who at some time in her high school career was so listed. Which is to say that the apparently low percentage may in fact reflect a great success.

But more probably, the numbers really tell very little. If the English learners who didn’t graduate only arrived in this country a year or two earlier, you wouldn’t expect them to graduate – would be shocked if many of them did.

The Department of Education warns that because both the graduation and dropout numbers were computed differently from any in the past, no comparisons with prior years can be made. They will, however, be useful for future comparisons.

Yet given California’s rapidly declining school funding – the curtailed school calendar in many districts, the bigger classes, the shrinking number of counselors and reading specialists – and the voters’ apparent indifference in the face of it, and given the shrinking opportunities in the state’s higher education system, we may soon look back on this year’s numbers, poor as they are, with longing.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, in which this column also appeared, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

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Author: Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

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