Citing mainly the impact of a million-dollar program to beef up counseling and tutoring, the Los Angeles school district on Monday reported a modest reduction in the high school dropout rate--from 18.1% two years ago to 14.5% last year.
In the 1986-87 academic year, there were 17,543 dropouts in grades 10 through 12, compared to 22,278 in 1985-86, district figures showed. That produced a one-year dropout rate of 14.5%, almost four percentage points lower than the previous year's figure. Several schools showed dramatic reductions of 15 to 20 percentage points.
But officials as well as outside experts acknowledged that calculating the dropout rate is imprecise, and that recent changes in the method for figuring the rates have contributed to confusion.
Change in Calculations
Before 1985, the district collected only "attrition" data, which officials said did not give an accurate picture of the dropout problem. The attrition figures showed how many students left district schools and included students who may have enrolled in school in other districts as well as dropouts.
Beginning in 1985, however, all districts statewide had to comply with new state requirements to specifically track dropouts.
Under the new system, 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students who leave school for at least 45 days or do not graduate are counted as dropouts. Also included are 9th-grade students eligible for promotion who fail to enroll in the 10th grade.
School officials also said that changes last year in instructions for counting dropouts contributed to the sharply lower rates at some schools in 1986-87.
Nevertheless, district dropout prevention director Pete Martinez gave major credit to the district's intensified efforts in dropout prevention, citing in particular a program established three years ago that provided extra individual counseling and tutoring services at 24 high schools with high dropout rates.
UCLA education professor James Catterall, a nationally known dropout expert, cautioned against attaching too much significance to the figures showing an improvement in the overall dropout situation.
"A 3.5% wobble in a dropout statistic is nothing to crow about," said Catterall, who has closely examined the dropout problem in the Los Angeles district. "It is more important to see how this (trend) plays out over three or four years."
Catterall said a state auditor general's report last fall found major inconsistencies in dropout reporting in 15 districts studied, with some districts underreporting and others overreporting dropouts by as much as 80%.
The difficulty stemmed largely from confusion over how to define a 10th-grade student, he said. The state guidelines were so vague that some districts used age as the criterion while others used course credits. Using a definition based on the accumulation of a minimum number of credits probably would result in an underestimation of a district's dropout problem, he said, because such students are less likely to drop out.
The Los Angeles district counted course credits, but Martinez disagreed that it resulted in a lower rate.
Catterall said his own studies have indicated that the actual dropout rate in Los Angeles high schools is closer to 40%. He noted that the 14.5% cited by the district is only a one-year rate and does not tell how many students may drop out over the three years of high school. A three-year estimate based on the 14.5% would give a 37.5% dropout rate.
DROPOUT RATES AT LOS ANGELES HIGH SCHOOLS
Los Angeles Unified School District defines a high school dropout as any 10th-, 11th- or 12th-grade student who leaves school before graduating and does not return within 45 days. Also included are 9th-graders who never showed up for 10th grade.
School 85-86 86-87 Banning 12.76 15.55 Bell 12.65 8.19 Belmont 20.44 12.70 Birmingham 13.11 6.79 Carson 10.63 8.49 Canoga Park 13.40 9.49 Chatsworth 10.62 11.71 Cleveland 24.05 15.50 Crenshaw 31.19 27.58 Dorsey 22.16 34.35 Eagle Rock 12.15 11.53 El Camino 9.18 5.44 Fairfax 20.46 13.77 Francis Poly 14.32 14.12 Franklin 16.27 14.79 Fremont 35.47 36.60 Gardena 4.65 4.74 Garfield 14.91 14.85 Granada Hills 32.71 11.87 Grant 20.68 13.56 Hamilton 17.14 21.77 Hollywood 21.89 23.67 Huntington Park 27.05 7.10 Jefferson 35.19 25.85 School 85-86 86-87 Jordan 42.19 28.71 Kennedy 5.75 5.38 Lincoln 12.38 12.15 Los Angeles 20.23 22.76 Locke 48.76 29.60 Manual Arts 36.94 33.53 Marshall 10.18 18.96 Monroe 17.41 15.70 Narbonne 22.57 8.22 North Hollywood 14.60 11.06 Palisades 10.45 8.32 Reseda 11.55 8.82 Roosevelt 20.59 14.20 San Fernando 36.26 19.83 San Pedro 12.80 8.96 South Gate 10.68 13.19 Sylmar 14.83 13.94 Taft 17.33 8.49 University 7.55 3.66 Van Nuys 23.57 22.66 Venice 12.87 11.97 Verdugo Hills 18.24 13.56 Washington 14.63 16.26 Westchester 6.76 4.45 Wilson 19.96 16.09
Source: Los Angeles Unified School District