New way of counting dropouts

More than 18 percent don't finish high school
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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.”

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10 Comments

  1. Below is an excerpt from an article I submitted to the Sac Bee some months ago. It puts the “drop out crisis” into a different perspective. Data and analysis from the Census is generally considered pretty solid.

    I must agree with Ms. Baron that this is a: “New way of counting dropouts; same old rates.”
    The new CALPADS based number is 18.2% and the number I gave in the Bee article was 18.9% based on the “old” CDE methodology.
    The attacks on teachers are at least partly grounded in a number of urban myths. One of the most insidious myths is that we have a crisis and a surge  in high schools dropouts.  The US Census Bureau delivered a press release in June of 2004 with the title: “High School Graduation Rates Reach All Time High: Non-Hispanic White and Black Graduates at Record Levels.” Black graduation rates had increased by 10 percentage points from 1993 to 2003. Hispanics’ rates rose by 11 percent in the same period. College graduation rate had also reached another historic high point. This has been topped  by the latest report from the US Department of Labor ( April of 2010) stated stating the highest percentage ever of new high school graduates were enrolled in colleges last fall.
    Although you hear hyperbolic statements about California’s dropout  rates  the reality, as reported by the Sacramento Bee who actually looked at the numbers reported by the California Department of Education, is 18.9 percent while the national average is around 15 percent   This is certainly improvable, but it doesn’t deserve the kinds of hysterical  reactions it seems to generate.
     

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  2. I am pleased, for a change, to agree with Mr. Ravani. There is a sufficient number of real reasons to complain about American teachers’ performance. We don’t need to pile on spurious ones.
     
    A major reason for HS dropout is the lack of meaningful VocEd options like Gary Hoachlander’s ConnectEd or Mass. regional technical schools, and instead trying to prepare everyone for academic college. Unfortunately, the Common Core will just exacerbate this trend.

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  3. I am pleased to say that for a change I agree with Mr. Wurman. One size fits few.

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  4. And the current budget cuts are only making this worse, because vocational ed is becoming the least worst thing to cut.
     
    I heard a story about a school with a guitar building class that was a huge motivator for the kids who took it. Those kids came to school every day because they wanted to work on their guitars. The at risk kids who might not have stayed in school did… because they didn’t want to lose access to the guitar woodshop. They learned to play the guitar and started bands.
     
    There’s so much learning going on with a project like this.

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  5. I would be interested in knowing if the dropout rate differs substantially for undocumented students. I wonder if they might face more pressures to drop out and fewer incentives to finish, and if the DREAM Act might help with that.

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  6. el:

    As far as I am aware schools would not collect information on student documentation. It would be intersting to know how many migrant students returned to their home country based on the economic decline and are counted as dropouts.

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  7. Students who leave the country, if that can be verified by the school district, would be excluded from the cohort.

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  8. The “if that can be verified by the school district” question is a huge one. I’ve done a lot of volunteering in school offices of diverse urban schools — anyone else here have that kind of experience, volunteer or paid? If not, you have NO idea (you would be staggered — your world view would change!) at the number of disconnected phones, messages left unreturned and so forth. Low-income people tend to have really unstable lives.
     
    My view based on life experience is that the high school dropout rate is not exaggerated at all. Teens tend to be fragile and resistant and hard to reach — teens in ALL demographics. That’s one reason I resist increased standardization and regimentation for teens, such as mandating the A-G requirements to graduate from high school, as well as the recently imposed stricter PE standards.
     
    But I question the supposed middle school dropout rate. It’s still the norm in all communities for kids at that age to go to school in one fashion or another. By the time they’re partway into high school, the disaffected teens are empowered to resist and defy and go their own way. In that area I suspect the lack of ability to track every students. I think there’s a lot of unawareness and magical thinking from people who don’t spend time in schools as to how effectively office staff can do that.

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  9. …oh, and needless to say, undocumented families leaving to go back to their home countries are extremely unlikely to fill out forms or otherwise give the school secretary information about where they’re going, even if they are preparing for departure.

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  10. This new graduation rate (imposed on states by 2008 changes to NCLB) is inferior to our previous graduation rate here in California (using the NCES formula).  This new cohort rate only looks at students who have graduated with their class in four years.  While I understand wanting to have this number, what happens to counting the students who take 5 or 6 years to finish high school?  If you look at Dataquest, with the NCES/old method, the state has 404,987 graduates for the 09-10 school year.  Per the new method, there were only 386, 222.  Where are the other 18,765?  These students will probably never show up in a graduation rate since their ‘cohort’ is in the past (prior to 09-10).  The problem is also there when we use the new cohort dropout rate.  The same math applies.  Rather than 98,475 state dropouts, there are only 94,312 (4163 missing and potentially never to be counted as dropouts). 

    The real dropout rate for the 09-10 cohort for the state is 19.6% (100% minus the NCES grad rate of 80.4) - higher than the 18.2% the state is using.  In my district, the difference is even larger – our old cohort dropout rate is 24.8% rather than 16.3% with the new rate.

    I hope that CA will continue with the old, NCES rate – which is more accurate for dropouts than the new.

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