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California High School Dropout Rate Near One-Quarter, Report Says

July 17, 2008

By Deb Kollars, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Jul. 17–A new high school dropout report released Wednesday shows significantly higher rates of students leaving public school in California than reported in previous years.

According to the California Department of Education, one in four high-schoolers — 24.2 percent — failed to graduate or move into another program to continue their education. The estimates were derived from data from the 2006-07 school year.

By contrast, the state claimed a 13.9 percent four-year dropout rate for the prior year.

The difference is due to a more accurate system for keeping track of students, said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. Under the system, students were given a unique identification number that enabled the state to better track their whereabouts in the education system.

It proved an eye-opening effort.

In the past, dropout counts were self-reported by schools and districts. In many places, the figures were considered serious undercounts, especially when compared with the rates of freshmen who actually graduated with their classes four years later.

The Grant Joint Union High School District, for example, reported an 18 percent four-year dropout rate in 2005-06.

Yet, that same year, the district (which recently merged into a new district called Twin Rivers) graduated only 1,232 students — fewer than half of the 2,547 ninth-graders enrolled four years earlier.

For years, such disparities ran up and down the state, leading to calls for reform of the dropout reporting system. Laws passed in 1995 and 2002 paved the way for a more accurate system, but financial and bureaucratic barriers prevented it until this year.

“Thank God we’ve finally moved in this direction,” said Delaine Eastin, who was state superintendent from 1995 until 2003 and advocated for a better tracking system. “It’s too little too late, though, for some of these students, these real-life people.”

Under the new system, the Grant district showed a 36.2 percent dropout rate — double its prior year’s and one of the highest district rates in the Sacramento region.

The Sacramento City Unified and San Juan Unified districts, by contrast, ran just below the Sacramento County rate of 26.5 percent and slightly above the statewide rate.

“We knew it was high, but this is a startling number,” said Frank Porter, superintendent of the Twin Rivers Unified School District, which absorbed Grant and three other districts July 1.

Porter said he was grateful for more reliable statistics: “It will give us a more accurate baseline,” he said, noting that Twin Rivers is taking steps to keep more students in school.

The announcement Wednesday that a fourth of California high-schoolers — more than 127,000 teenagers — quit school prematurely left many disturbed.

Rates run even higher for African American and Latino students. And although younger students are not accounted for in the four-year rates, the report shows thousands dropping out as early as seventh and eighthgrades.

“It’s plain unacceptable,” said state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. “These are young people who are largely uneducated and unprepared for the high-wage jobs in the new economies of California.”

Mary Shelton, associate superintendent at Sacramento City Unified, agreed too many students leave early. She cautioned, though, that the rates listed for individual high schools may overstate dropouts because of mobility factors.

Hiram Johnson High School, for example, had a 35.4 percent dropout rate. But the school also has a huge transfer rate because families move so much.

“It’s like a revolving door,” Shelton said. “Last year half the kids transferred in or out in the course of the year.”

O’Connell said the new system was designed to make better sense of transfers.

In the past, he said, when students left schools saying they were switching to another campus, their schools counted them as transfers, not dropouts, without checking if the students actually re-enrolled elsewhere.

With the new student tracking system, the state was able to determine whether such transfers took place.

If not, such students were deemed “lost transfers” and counted as dropouts. They were a big factor in the uptick in dropout rates.

“Twenty-four percent of students dropping out is not good news,” O’Connell said, noting that the more accurate data should lead to greater accountability and more focus on helping students complete school.

Wednesday’s report said 8.2 percent of students were considered neither dropouts nor graduates because they moved to a private school, earned a high school equivalency certificate, left the state or died, among other things.

Alan Bonsteel, a Marin physician long critical of the state’s dropout counts, said the numbers still are not accurate because they fail to account for middle school dropouts and students who move to other states, countries or private schools or leave school for other reasons.

“We’re still undercounting,” said Bonsteel, president of California Parents for Educational Choice, a nonprofit that advocates for charters and vouchers.

According to the Department of Education, an even more accurate tally will be available when the state launches a longitudinal data system in 2009-10.

It will enable the tracking of individual students over time, rather than producing derived rates based on a single year’s data.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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