July 17, 2008

Dropout Rate Has Doubled, Data Find: Some in County Question Figures

By Marjorie Hernandez, Ventura County Star, Calif.

Jul. 17--State officials Wednesday released revised statistics for high school dropouts that show the rate last year was nearly twice the previous year's figure for Ventura County and elsewhere, but some local educators questioned the new numbers.

According to the California Department of Education, 4.6 percent of Ventura County students in grades 9 to 12 dropped out during the 2006-07 school year, compared with 2.4 percent previously reported.

Projected over four years, the statistics show that a total of 17.6 percent of Ventura County students will drop out at some point in high school -- also nearly double the 9.6 percent previously reported.

Ventura County, however, fared better than the overall statewide four-year dropout rate of 24.2 percent.

State education officials agreed that comparing the new data to the old method of tracking students is "comparing apples to oranges," because the figures now include students who are "lost transfers."

Students are considered a lost transfer if they leave a school, say they plan to attend a different public school in California but cannot be tracked down to ensure they did indeed re-enroll.

The latest dropout numbers were compiled partly by using individual student information through a new system that includes the Statewide Student Identifier -- a unique, 10-digit number used to track each student.

For the first time, school districts can provide and share better information about students who have not completed their education, state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell said Wednesday.

In previous years, school officials had to rely on information from parents or guardians if a child left a school.

"For too long, we had to rely on complicated formulas to make educated guesses about how many students were graduating and how many were leaving school without a diploma," O'Connell said in a media release. "Arguments over differing approaches to this calculation often resulted in confusing and distracting conversations. Now, using student-level data, we can improve the accuracy of our count of how many students drop out, increase accountability and focus on preventing dropouts."

Some Ventura County educators were not surprised by the increase of recorded dropouts, while others said they plan to recount their figures. School districts have until the end of August to submit figure changes to the state.

In the Conejo Valley Unified School District, for example, the four-year dropout projection is 9.5 percent, which did not reflect numbers reported by individual school sites, said Janet Cosaro, assistant superintendent of instruction.

Cosaro said coding errors caused by switching to the new system could have inflated the numbers.

"We have to do some more training in imputing the data, and I am happy the state is allowing us to do that," Cosaro said.

"It will be interesting to see over the next few years if there are patterns and who is starting with us and actually finishing high school, no matter where they go."

Becky Buettner, the Oxnard Union High School District's director of assessment and accountability, said the dropout increase reflects not only lost transfers, but also many students who move in and out of the district.

"I am not surprised, but I am disappointed," Buettner said of the latest figures. "We do have a large population of migrant students. It is also tough when people tell you that they are going to another school and they don't. What it has to come down to is hitting the pavement and making those calls to see if the student has enrolled."

David Gomez, superintendent of Santa Paula Union High School District, said the new system is "a little unfair" because the original school district is held accountable when a student does not re-enroll in another school.

"We are always concerned about where our students go, but sometimes we just have to rely on parents and students to communicate with us," Gomez said. "And sometimes they don't go where they told us they would and just drop out."


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Copyright (c) 2008, Ventura County Star, Calif.

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