Trending toward graduation

California’s high school graduation rate is edging upwards for most groups of students. The overall graduation rate for 2010-11 was 76.3 percent, or 1.5 percent above the prior year.

Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, acknowledged that while it’s not a surge, it’s still good news.

“It’s heading in the right direction; it’s certainly not where we want it to be,” said Torlakson during a telephone conference call with journalists on Wednesday. “The thing that I think is more noteworthy is the larger gains we’re seeing among Hispanics and African American students.”

The graduation rate for Hispanic students increased by 2.2 percent to 70.4 percent, and rose by 2.3 percent among African American students to reach 62.9 percent. At the same time, dropout rates for those groups of students fell by 3.1 percent and 2.1 percent respectively. English learners also showed progress, with a 3.8 percent increase in their graduation rates.

Torlakson said these improvements are especially striking because they’re happening “in the face of terrible budgets, a lot of turmoil and uncertainty in schools, more crowded classrooms, a shorter school year, summer school being eliminated,” and a shortage of textbooks, computers, and science lab equipment.

He credited the change to more focused interventions for low-income students at risk of dropping out, such as AVID and the Puente Project, that give them the support, encouragement, and college prep skills to put college within their grasp.

The CALPADS difference

This is the second year that the state has calculated graduation and dropout rates using CALPADS, the longitudinal student data system that uses unique student identifiers.

One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source:  California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge
One year adjusted changes in state graduation and dropout rates. (Source: California Dept. of Education). Click to enlarge

With CALPADS, state education officials can track student progress from ninth grade to twelfth grade, accounting, for the most part, for students who transfer to other public schools in the state, earn GEDs, and even those who stay in high school for a fifth year to graduate.

“This is the first time we’ve been able to compare the rates from one year to the next, and for them to be used in the federal accountability system,” said Keric Ashley, director of the data management division at the state department of education.  Starting next year, Ashley said California will have enough data to calculate graduation and dropout rates for students starting in seventh grade.

Nearly all states now use a similar system required by the federal government for reporting under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  Before CALPADS, there was little consistency, and not always great accuracy, in how districts and the state computed these rates. One common approach was to take a head-count of students in ninth grade and subtract the number remaining at the end of twelfth grade.  Another method was to add up all the 17-year-olds reported to be in public and private schools and divide that by the total population of 17-year-olds.

Even CALPADS has limitations and some bugs to be worked out.  As the chart on the left shows, there are two columns for the class of 2009-10 – the first is 09-10 and the second is 09-10(A).  The “A” stands for adjusted.  Ashley explained that when CDE was reviewing the rates for the class of 2011, they noticed that some graduates had been in high school for more than four years so they were actually part of the previous year’s cohort and had to be switched.  There will be another adjustment in December, when school districts will have another opportunity to make corrections to their data.

CALPADS also doesn’t know if a student transfers to a private high school in California, switches to home schooling or leaves the state unless the original school gets documentation from the student’s family and sends it to the state department of education.  It also doesn’t track students who complete high school in different venues, such as an adult education program at a community college.

These are small gaps and won’t account for big changes in the numbers, but having more and better data can be meaningful, said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Dropping Out:  Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it.

“We’d like to know how many of our students eventually graduate and go on to college,” said Rumberger. ”As a state we’d like to know everybody who completes, however and whenever they do it.”

Bills seek to curb suspensions

The school discipline pendulum is on the move again, swinging from the uncompromising zero tolerance policies enacted in the aftermath of horrific massacres toward efforts to give school officials more discretion.

The state Senate and Assembly education committees yesterday approved half a dozen bills with variations on the common theme of cutting back on expulsions and out-of-school suspensions by implementing programs aimed at reducing disruptive and dangerous behavior.

The shifting legislative momentum follows a series of reports in recent weeks shedding light on the vast number of suspensions, racial disparities in how they’re applied, and their negative impact on students.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source:  Senate website) Click to enlarge.
Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg discussing his bill to reduce suspensions. (Source: Senate website) Click to enlarge.

During the 2009-10 academic year, there were more than 750,000 suspensions in California schools, according to recently released figures from the Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, which we first reported on here. That’s nearly as many as the entire population of San Francisco.

“It does seem like in past generations if a child was suspended from school it was a big deal. You took notice,” said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg at a news conference earlier this week. “And now it is the default for too many schools to suspend a kid just because it’s the easier thing to do than to work with him.”

Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source:  The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Suspensions by race and ethnicity. (Source: The Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

The most severe punishment is disproportionately meted out by race and ethnicity. Suspended Education in California, an analysis of the federal data released a few days ago by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA, found that one out of every five African American students was suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared to one in 14 Latino students and one in 17 white students.

Steinberg’s bill, SB 1235, would require schools with suspensions rates above 25 percent overall or for a specific racial or ethnic group to implement a research-based alternative that holds the student accountable for their misbehavior but keeps them in school. (Click here for a list of all the bills).

“We know what happens,” said Steinberg, “A kid who doesn’t have to be suspended, who is suspended, stays home, falls further behind in school, is unsupervised, has a much greater chance of dropping out, and becomes a statistic.

A sweeping study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center looked at the records of every seventh grade student in Texas in 2000, 2001 and 2002, and found that 31 percent of students who were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades were held back at least once, compared with 10 percent of all other students, and they were five times as likely to drop out of school.

Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.
Relationship between any disciplinary contact and repeating a grade or dropping out. (Source: Council of State Governments). Click to enlarge.

Counterpoising those studies is research evaluating a decade of in-school interventions that show the success of programs like Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) in changing student behavior, teacher contentment and school climate.

After implementing a PBIS program at Pioneer High School in Woodland, principal Kerry Callahan told the Senate Education Committee there was a cultural shift at the school.  She recounted dealing with an out-of-control student who wouldn’t stop cursing at her.  Under the Education Code, Callahan could have suspended the girl; instead, she took her to the front office, calmed her down, and learned that the student’s mother had just abandoned the family.  Rather than sending her home to an emotionally raw environment, Callahan talked to the girl’s father about getting her into counseling, and got her some academic support.

Pioneer High also cut the number of suspension days in half from over 600 to about 300, boosted its Academic Performance Index by 37 points, reduced staff turnover by 50 percent, and improved attendance bringing in nearly $100,000 this year in additional ADA funds.

“We’ve been pushing to have this at every school,” said Laura Faer, the education rights director at Public Counsel Law Center, who has been working on this issue for nearly a decade.  “There is absolutely no excuse for not using alternatives that work for all children.”

Not everyone sees it that way.  Throughout Wednesday’s hearings, two legislative advocates for the Association of California School Administrators played tag team presenting testimony against each of the bills.   Laura Preston said ACSA isn’t opposed to everything in the bills, but is concerned that they may be going too far in the opposite direction.

Under current state law, school principals are required to immediately suspend students, and recommend expulsion, for five actions:

  • Possessing, selling or furnishing a firearm
  • Brandishing a knife at another person
  • Unlawfully selling a controlled substance
  • Committing or attempting to commit a sexual act
  • Possessing an explosive

For other behaviors, notably “willful disobedience,” principals have more discretion. Preston understands the frustration of parents and students when administrators don’t use common sense in those situations and suspend or expel students for talking back to teachers or bringing a butter knife in their lunchbox.

At the same time, the school violence that led to these zero tolerance policies hasn’t disappeared, said Preston, and removing some of that behavior from the mandatory expulsion category could be dangerous.

“Parents expect their children’s schools to be safe,” said Preston.  “There’s an expectation of every parent that when they send their kids to school they’re going to be in a safe environment and it’s our responsibility to ensure that they are.”

Preston is pushing for a conference committee with legislators and all the stakeholders, such as Public Counsel and other organizations actively working on this issue to try to refine and consolidate some of the bills. She said these conference committees were more routine before term limits, and provided everyone with an opportunity for thoughtful conversations.  Hopefully, that process will help them find a balance.

So many students are hurting; listen and learn from their views

As I wake each morning, I tell myself, “Thank you, God, for another day; may I encounter smiles on people’s faces.” I walk to school and I run into a lot of my fellow students. Sadly, I can tell some are hurting inside. I wonder about their stories and if they receive help at school rather than just being taught.

Lately, there have been many articles in the news media about school dropout and truancy rates. Schools have improved, but some issues remain. Programs are being implemented to solve the problems, but what about the students’ opinions? After all, we know what it’s like in school, what is and isn’t working. Rather than just hearing us out, why can’t actions include our opinions?

I have been in the shoes of these students, wondering and asking myself questions daily. In elementary school, I wondered why students were given differing resources and why some didn’t receive any at all. For example, it was a given that English learners needed assistance, but others who had the same reading comprehension level as English learners were not given the necessary help just because they were not “classified” as English language learners. I also wondered why some students would constantly get in trouble and be suspended continuously, and why there wasn’t much done to help them stay in school and improve.

Years passed as I transitioned to middle school. The issues and disagreements became physical, harmful fights. The faces of students I once knew in elementary school drifted away. I had no clue who my old classmates had become. I wondered if they were OK, if they attended school, and if they were accomplishing their goals.

Now, as a senior in high school, I have seen a great number of students drop out for various reasons. Watching this happen not only affected me, but it made my community unhealthy.

I see so much talent in these students. Some students are unable to know their talents in school because they feel there is no point in going to class if they are just going to be sent out of the classroom. Of course, it may be reasonable to send out a student for acting up, but it is also reasonable to find out why the student is acting up in the first place.

Since freshman year, I have been involved with groups like Californians For Justice, a student-led racial justice organization working for better schools and lower dropout rates. I have also become involved in Building Healthy Communities, a campaign of the California Endowment whose goal is to support the development of communities where kids and youth are healthy, safe, and ready to learn.

In Building Healthy Communities, I participate in Project SUCCESS (Students United to Create a Climate of Engagement, Support and Safety), where our focus is to ensure that schools provide a supportive environment and reach out to help students stay on target to graduate. Whether it is listening to the issues happening at home, hearing the reasons that lead students to fight, or helping students think of better ways to solve conflicts, we should see more students staying in school, not more students suspended or expelled. We need to keep students in school and see them move on to graduation instead of watching them fail.

These programs have helped me build the skills I didn’t know I had inside. Most of all, they help my voice grow and be heard.

The youth voice is worth listening to. We are the most affected by these issues, and we must build a voice with several ideas to find solutions.

We might be portrayed as just “kids,” but people always leave out the fact that we are “just kids with answers.” Why else would we give up our Friday nights, our weekends, and even our holidays to discuss how we can help improve education and keep our peers in school? Our voices must be heard, too.

Miriam Hernandez is a senior at Roosevelt High School in Fresno and a student campaign chair with Californians for Justice (CFJ), which is part of the Campaign for Quality Education.

America cannot afford the stiff price of a dropout nation

Kenny Buchanan is 44 years old and dropped out of high school 26 years ago. He’s been paying the price ever since. He’s held eight jobs in the last five years and has never earned more than $40,000 in a year.

Kenny is one of 40 million Americans who never graduated from high school.

Dropouts face bleak economic futures. Dropouts are the least educated workers in the labor market and thus have the poorest job prospects compared to more educated workers. This means they are less likely to find jobs, and when they do find them, the jobs generally pay the lowest wages.

Dropouts are also less likely than more educated workers to invest in additional education and training, further limiting their prospects for securing well-paying jobs over their entire working lives. The difference in lifetime earnings between dropouts and high school completers exceeds half a million dollars. As a result of their low earnings, dropouts are more likely to live in poverty and require public assistance throughout their lifetimes.

The consequences of dropping out are not just economic. Dropouts are more likely to engage in crime and, consequently, are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. In 2006-07, young dropouts were six times more likely than high school graduates to be incarcerated. Dropouts are more likely to experience teenage childbearing, unplanned childbearing, and non-marital childbearing, all of which can lead to adverse consequences for them and their children. Dropouts also have poorer health and, as a result, have a life expectancy nine years less than high school graduates. Finally, dropouts are less likely to vote and to participate in community activities.

The individual consequences of dropping out exact a huge social cost that all Americans must pay. The low human capital of high school dropouts robs the economy of skills needed to fuel economic growth and enhance U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. President Obama has set a national goal of the United States having the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by the year 2020. But we will never get there as long as we remain 20th in the world in the proportion of high school graduates.

The poor economic outcomes for dropouts translate into huge financial losses for the country, for states, and for local communities. Economist Cecilia Rouse estimates that over their lifetimes the nation’s dropouts from a single 20-year-old age cohort will account for at least $165 billion in foregone economic income for the country and $58 billion in lost tax revenues. The Alliance for Excellent Education has produced similar estimates for states and local communities. For instance, if half of the estimated 70,000 dropouts from the high school class of 2008 in the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area had graduated, they would have generated $575 million in additional wages over their working lives and paid an additional $79 million in taxes.

The increased criminal activities from dropouts – arson, robbery, theft, rape, murder, and family violence – exact tremendous economic, physical, and emotional harm on victims. The victim costs alone for crime range from $370 for larceny to $2.9 million for murder, while the incarceration expense – borne by taxpayers – ranges from $44 for larceny and theft to $845,455 for murder.

Dropouts are more likely to qualify for and receive government welfare benefits.

Taxpayers also pay for dropouts’ poor health. Dropouts are two to three times more likely than high school graduates to receive government-funded Medicaid benefits.

Adding the reduced tax revenues and increased public expenditures for crime, welfare, and health, economist Henry Levin and his colleagues estimated that the “average” 20-year-old dropout generates more than $200,000 in economic losses over his or her working lifetime, while an entire cohort of 20-year-old dropouts generates a total economic loss of $148 billion.

Dropouts are indeed costly. But the costs are not just economic.

The high rate of poverty among dropouts is transmitted from one generation to the next. Children raised in poor families are two to seven times more likely to be poor in early adulthood compared to children raised in non-poor families.

And the low voter and civic engagement of dropouts undermines our democratic way of life. As political scientist Larry Bartels points out, the growing economic inequality in our country produces inequality in political responsiveness and public policies that are increasingly detrimental to the interests of the poorest and least educated Americans.

President Obama recognized that every American has a stake in solving the nation’s dropout crisis when he said: “So this is a problem we cannot afford to accept and we cannot afford to ignore. The stakes are too high – for our children, for our economy, and for our country.”

Russell W. Rumberger is Vice Provost for Education Partnerships at the University of California Office of the President and Professor of Education at UC Santa Barbara. He also directs the California Dropout Research Project. He has written about dropouts for the past 30 years and is author of Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of School and What Can Be Done About It (Harvard University Press). This article first appeared in Education News.

Rationing for community colleges

The days of the so-called professional student at California’s community colleges may be coming to an end.  After nearly a year of studying ways to improve graduation and transfer rates, with dwindling resources, the 21-member Student Success Task Force on community colleges is considering changes to some of the historic tenets of the nation’s largest public college system.

For example, the standard practice of using state funds to subsidize all students, including those with no apparent career goals and those dabbling in art, music, and other non-degree courses, is poised to take its place in history class. Students not on the academic or career track would also be sent to the back of the registration line.

“You’re no longer a continuing student if you signed up for 100 credits and only completed 30,” said Jack Scott, Chancellor of the California Community College system. “In this day and age, when the money is scarce, we’re really rationing our seats, so we’ve got to recognize those who are serious.  We’re not against lifelong learning but those students are not our priorities.”

Recommendations get public airing

Earlier this week, State Senator Carol Liu (D-Pasadena) held a hearing on the task force’s draft recommendations before her Subcommittee on Education Policy Research. Liu authored the 2010 bill, SB 1143, which called for the panel to be created at the start of this year.Task Force Draft Recommendations

Liu had seen an advance copy of the report, but was still struck by how substantial it is, said Suzanne Reed, the senator’s chief of staff and a member of the task force. Liu was also very interested in hearing about concerns with some of the recommendations, said Reed.

One controversial issue surrounds giving community colleges more flexibility in how they spend funds currently designated for programs like educating prospective foster parents and career technical education. “The concern is that if you put that in the flex, the colleges could choose to use the money for something else,” said Reed. If the categorical flex given to K-12 school districts is any indication, then the colleges will almost certainly redirect the funds.

There’s also push back against a proposal that would give the Chancellor’s office more authority, as well as a recommendation for performance-based funding, essentially allotting money based on student outcomes instead of funding based solely on enrollment.

“One of the big issues here is that a lot of this is a cultural change,” said Reed. “It’s a reorientation of how people feel about the delivery of education to community college students.”

Billions spent on dropouts

Until a few years ago, the goal had been to get more students into college, and community colleges were the front lines of that effort. But a recent confluence of reports warns that states are spending billions of dollars on students who drop out or languish for years in a series of unrelated, unfocused courses.

“We’ve been on the access agenda for 20 years or more now, but haven’t figured out how to get as many students out the door when they walk in,” said Mark Schneider, vice president of the American Institutes for Research and author of “The Hidden Costs of Community Colleges.”

State spending on community college students who drop out. (Source: American Institutes for Research) Click to enlarge
State spending on community college students who drop out. (Source: American Institutes for Research) Click to enlarge

There are more than six million community college students – an increase of about 25 percent over the last decade – and about 20 percent never return after their first year of school, according to the report.  AIR followed a cohort of students over five years and found those dropouts cost taxpayers about $4 billion in state funding and local, state, and federal grants. California’s share is about $130 million.

“Part of the problem is that we are only beginning to take this problem seriously, and as a result our playbook for fixing this problem is pretty much empty,” said Schneider.

Agreement on solutions

It’s no coincidence that California and the AIR are both tackling this issue at the same time.  Schneider credits President Obama with elevating college to a level not seen since the Sputnik crisis, and for much the same reason, to reignite America’s competitiveness.

“Already, we’ve mobilized business leaders to train 10,000 American engineers a year, by providing company internships and training.  Other businesses are covering tuition for workers who learn new skills at community colleges.  And we’re going to make sure the next generation of manufacturing takes root not in China or Europe, but right here, in the United States of America,” said the President last month in a speech before a joint session of Congress.

The Student Success Task Force has developed 22 recommendations to improve graduation and transfer rates, and over the next few months, the panel will solicit feedback on its proposals from community college faculty and administrators, business leaders and the public.* Then the plan goes to the community college Board of Governors. Even if they agree, some changes will require legislative approval, and some will have to wait until the state’s economy improves.

Chancellor Scott said there are programs that can be implemented right away, such as making better of use of technology to advise students; and there are reforms already approved, including SB 1440, a 2010 bill that creates an associate degree for transfer that must be accepted by California State University without requiring students to take additional classes.   And Gov. Brown just signed a bill to develop a common placement exam for community colleges.

Each change makes incremental improvements in the success rate said Chancellor Scott.  “We’ll never have 100 percent completion, but we can do a lot to ensure the completion rate is higher.”

* Three town hall meetings are scheduled.  October 27th in Los Angeles, November 2nd in Fresno and November 16th in Oakland.  They’ll also be broadcast live on the web.

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.


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.”

Grad rates trending up – or down

If California’s graduation and dropout rates were a pair of jeans, they’d have an “irregular” sticker on them. Sure, social science research has a reputation for squishy results, but it’s still a bit jarring when a renowned researcher describes certain data as “bogus.” Although he said it with an ironic laugh, that was the first word that popped into Russell Rumberger’s mind when I asked him about the California high school graduation rates in “Diplomas Count,” an annual report from Education Week.

Rumberger is an education professor in the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UC Santa Barbara, where he founded the California Dropout Research Project and has been conducting research on school dropouts for 25 years. His new book on the subject, Dropping out: Why students drop out of high school and what can be done about it, is due out later this year.

A sharp dip followed by a sharper rise

Where California stands nationwide in graduation rates according to Diplomas Count (click to enlarge)
Where California stands nationwide in graduation rates according to Diplomas Count (click to enlarge)

The statistics in question are in the California supplement of the report (available for purchase from EdWeek here), showing changes in graduation rates between 1998 and 2008. For much of the time they’re fairly stable, from a few tenths of a point to a little over one percent from year to year. Over the course of the decade, California’s graduation rate increased from 67.5 percent to 73 percent, staying close to the national average. But in between there’s a dramatic shakeup and recovery.

It started in 2005, when the state’s graduation rate was 70.1 percent. Within two years, by 2007, it had fallen to 62.7 percent, the sharpest decline in the ten-year period. A year later, in 2008, it surged back up by more than ten points to 73 percent. “Pretty wild,” said Rumberger. “The bottom line is all these numbers are estimates, and estimates have errors.”

California runs its own numbers, and they’re quite different. Actually, California runs two sets of numbers,

Diploma Counts shows a sharp drop in Calif graduation rate not seen in other analyses (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Bob Nichols, SVEF)
Diploma Counts shows a sharp drop in Calif graduation rate not seen in other analyses (Click to enlarge. Courtesy Bob Nichols, SVEF)

but more on that in a moment. The official statistics that the state sends to the U.S. Department of Education, for No Child Left Behind reporting, show a downward trend between 1998 and 2008, falling from a high of 87 percent to about 80 percent. But even at their lowest point, those graduation rates are still higher across the board than EdWeek’s figures.

And just to complicate it a little more, that second set of numbers that California prepares has graduation rates heading up after a 2006 downturn, but coming in lower than EdWeek. So we have three sets of calculations, all using data from the same source, obtaining different results and different trends.

It’s all in the formula

It’s no better nationally. Rumberger recently served on a committee of the National Research Council and National Academy of Education that examined the various measurements that states use to determine their graduation and dropout rates. The committee found “widespread disagreement” about the best measurements and their uses. Looking at the year 2005, the committee found three different school completion rates published by the U.S. Department of Education, Editorial Projects in Education (a project of EdWeek), and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Some researchers suspect the problem is with the way the rates are calculated and not with the numbers used to make those calculations.

In its final report, the panel found most formulas to be flawed and occasionally skewed by politics. “At a time when policy makers are vitally interested in tracking the incidence of dropping out of school, they are faced with choosing among substantially discrepant estimates that would lead them to different conclusions regarding both the size of the drop out problem and how it has changed in recent years,” they wrote.

The most common calculations are aggregate counts, the cumulative promotion index (CPI), and cohorts. Aggregate is the simplest and bluntest, comparing the number of graduates to the number of ninth graders four years earlier. The CPI is based on how many students progress from grade 9 to 10, 10 to 11, 11 to 12, and then ultimately graduate. Karl Scheff, with the California Department of Education, says CPI is better than aggregate but still doesn’t get at what happens to individual students. That’s the true cohort measure and it’s the brass ring of data.

Calling on CALPADS

California has been collecting this data for five years, ever since assigning individual student identifiers as part of the CALPADS student data system.  Up until now, even though districts have been sending in student-level data, the state has still been aggregating it.  “We just added them up and plugged them into the traditional calculation,” said Scheff.  This year should be the first time they have a full cohort of students from grade 9 through graduation, but now funding for CALPADS is up in the air.

Gov. Brown proposed cutting the budget for CALPADS in his May revise.  Both the Assembly and Senate have restored the money but Scheff says it’s not clear whether the Governor will veto it.  With CALPADS, state officials will have a robust data source that can track students who move out of

"The actual rate is somewhere in the middle," says Russell Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project (click to enlarge)
"The actual rate is somewhere in the middle," says Russell Rumberger of the California Dropout Research Project (click to enlarge)

state, transfer to a private school, or spend a fifth year in high school in order to provide a much more precise look at graduation and dropout rates.

Until then, we’ll have to sort through two, three or four reports each with its own interpretation of the data.  Rumberger tries to be as precise as possible when giving presentations.  “I’ll show the two state rates,” he said, “and what I tell people is the actual rate is somewhere in the middle.”

Additional Resources:

A More Accurate Measure of California’s Dropout Rate, June 2010, California Dropout Research Project.

Independent Evaluation of the California High School Exit Examination: 2010 Evaluation Report, Volume 1, Oct. 2010, Human Resources Research Organization

Public School Graduates and Dropouts From the Common Core of Data: School Year 2008-2009, National Center for Education Statistics

STAR tests may end for youngest

Reading about SB 740, State Senator Loni Hancock’s (D-Oakland) bill to eliminate second grade STAR testing, took me back to my daughter’s initiation into standardized testing. She puked. “She almost made it out the classroom door,” her second-grade teacher told me with a laugh. Since she didn’t have a fever and nothing happened that night, I brought her back to school the next day. Her classmates applauded when she walked in. Was it stress? Perhaps. She’s in college now and says she still dislikes tests.

Hancock shares that aversion. She’s tried twice to pass similar legislation. Both bills died. SB 740 has made it to the Senate floor, where it will be voted on today. (See update below) “The second-grade test is something that has been of concern to her for a long time because of the recommendation of numerous groups that to do an assessment of second graders is not reliable,” said Rebecca Baumann, a legislative aide to the senator.

No high stakes for young children

The National PTA has taken the position that “Standardized multiple-choice tests and school readiness tests should never be used with preschool and early elementary children for any purpose.” The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) developed guidelines urging discretion in testing children 8 and under:

The use of formal standardized testing and norm referenced assessments of young children is limited to situations in which such measures are appropriate and potentially beneficial, such as identifying potential disabilities.

In place of the STAR exam, Hancock’s bill requires the State Department of Education to provide school districts with information on assessments in mathematics and English language arts that classroom teachers can use for purely diagnostic purposes – something that most teachers already do as a matter of course.

Baumann says diagnostic tests are more practical because they can be given several times during a school year to provide teachers with immediate feedback on how each student is doing. STAR test results aren’t released until the school year is over. Plus, diagnostic tests don’t take up as much class time. “It takes six to eight days to administer the [STAR] test,” says Baumann. “The amount of time taken away from instruction at the second grade level is substantial.”

740 is a blunt instrument

Despite its difficult past, the current bill has few opponents on record. The staff analysis lists only EdVoice, a nonprofit organization working for school reform in California. But it’s a vociferous critic. President and CEO Bill Lucia calls it “a blunt instrument approach to taking the second grade out of the API (Academic Performance Index).” Lucia isn’t against having a policy discussion of whether the second-grade test should be included in the API, but says that’s a whole different discussion.

His foremost concern is that waiting until third grade is too late to learn whether students are working below grade level. “We know the consequence of that can be extremely costly,” said Lucia, citing statistics that show a grim path, with students below grade level by the end of third grade being four times more likely to drop out of school, and dropouts being eight times more likely to wind up in prison.

The State Department of Education hasn’t yet taken a position on 740, but State Superintendent Tom Torlakson “is supportive of the concept,” said Erin Gabel, his director for legislative affairs. In fact the Department sponsored a bill by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) that, initially, also eliminated second-grade testing. But Brownley removed that provision from AB 250 in order to get it out of the appropriations committee. The bill passed the Assembly yesterday and is now headed for the Senate.

The main thrust of 250 is to make sure the state is prepared for the Common Core assessments that are set to begin in 2014-15. California has put all curriculum framework, professional development, and instructional materials adoption on hold while waiting for the Common Core standards, but Gabel says that’s poor planning. “It’s imperative that we provide direction and support for classroom instruction. We’re on a tight timeline here.”

Conflicting opinions on NCLB and second grade

EdVoice’s Lucia also argues that Title III of No Child Left Behind requires all English language learners in kindergarten through 12th grade to be tested every year to assess their progress. He says California stands to lose millions in federal funding if second graders are exempt from the STAR test. But Gabel says that’s not so. If it were true, then the state would already be out of compliance because it doesn’t administer the tests in kindergarten and first grade. She said the state has been using the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which assesses English proficiency, without any pushback from the federal government.

In fact, California is one of just a handful of states that has second graders take the exam. NCLB only requires standardized testing to begin in third grade, so the two panels developing tests for the Common Core standards are also starting with third grade. But just because it’s not mandated, says Lucia, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. Without second grade scores, he says, we’ll be losing “data to make better informed decisions on what’s working for kids.”

Update: Turns out that SB 740 passed the Senate last night on a vote of 21 to 13, and was sent to the Assembly

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.