September 4, 2008

New Analysis Gives More Accurate Data for California School Drop Outs

By Kimberly S Wetzel; Katy Murphy; Jennifer Gokhman

California's future may not be so bright after all.

Nearly one in four of the state's approximately 6 million students drops out of school, according to the most accurate-ever analysis of dropout data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.

The data -- based for the first time on actual student tracking rather than a "guesstimated" formula as used in the past -- show that an estimated 24.2 percent of students dropped out in the 2006- 07 school year. More than 67 percent of the state's public school- eligible students graduated, and 8 percent of students -- such as those who seek GEDs -- are considered neither dropouts nor graduates.

The dropout figure alarmed state education leaders this week. They said something must be done to keep students engaged in learning.

"Twenty-four percent of students dropping out is not good news," state education chief Jack O'Connell said at a Wednesday news conference. "In fact, any student dropping out of school is one too many. This is data-rich information that will be a powerful tool to better target resources, assistance and interventions to keep students in school and on track."

Tracy Unified School District Superintendent James Franco said he is learning about the new system for tracking dropouts.

"It's brand new," Franco said. "We will have to practice reading and interpreting it."

He said he likes that it is accurate and that there will be a way to see where students go when they leave a school, whether it is to an alternative program, another school district or if they leave the state altogether. He noted that there have not been consistent systems of tracking dropouts, and there is no way to compare the current data to the previous year's data.

"It's a more consistent way to track the dropouts," Franco said. "We'll be able to see if intervention is working."

Franco said that dropout prevention starts in elementary school with testing and getting help for students who need it. High schools offer a range of assistance, he said, including appropriate classes based on a student's progress, counseling and various ways to make up credits. Franco said that students who move from community to community tend to be more susceptible to becoming dropouts. When students move a lot, it takes more time to find out how they're doing and what classes they should take. It's easier for students who are more established in their communities, he said.

"The goal is for 100 percent of our kids to graduate from high school," he said.

In the past, it's been difficult to determine how many of the state's students drop out of school. Last year, the state assigned students identification numbers to help track their whereabouts in the educational system. The result is more accurate data but also higher dropout rates than previously thought.

"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. "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."

The one-year data for Tracy Unified School District show a dropout rate of 3.4 percent and a rate of 1.9 percent for Manteca Unified School District.

Two years ago, California assigned every public school student a unique state ID number in order to track their progress, regardless of where in the state they moved. If a student vanishes from Oakland High School, for example, and turns up in Los Angeles Unified a month later, that student will no longer be considered a dropout. The system does not track students who move out of the state or country.

Unlike previous reports, which accounted only for graduates and dropouts, the new system includes other categories: students who are still preparing for the high school exit exam, for example, or who are enrolled in an adult school.

Dozens of states already use the same method, which was encouraged in a graduation compact signed by all 50 governors in 2005. It is widely considered the only way to accurately gauge what happens to high school students, particularly in areas with high levels of mobility. The governors' compact followed a high-profile study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project that concluded that California was reporting an unrealistically high graduation rate.

Kevin Smith, who conducts data analysis for the Oakland school district, said he welcomed the influx of accurate information. "It's always been very, very difficult to accurately gauge how many students dropped out," he said, "especially in a district like Oakland that has a high rate of mobility; students disappear on us."

Originally published by Kimberly S. Wetzel, Katy Murphy and Jennifer Gokhman, Staff Writers.

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