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Numbers Game

When it comes to counting dropouts, the LAUSD seems unable to add

June 29, 2003|Howard Blume | Howard Blume writes for the L.A. Weekly. Dennis Dockstader contributed research for this piece.

If you accept the school district's official numbers, Los Angeles Unified is doing a pretty good job of keeping kids from dropping out. The official dropout rate is a mere 5.7% districtwide. At some schools -- even inner-city schools -- the numbers have been even better. Manual Arts High School near downtown, for example, claimed a recent annual dropout rate of just 0.1%.

The problem is, the numbers just don't add up.

Begin with last year's reported dropout rate of 5.7%. That's a one-year rate. So for a more accurate picture, multiply that number by four, to account for four years of dropouts from each class during the years of high school. That adjusted number would suggest a dropout rate more like 23%. For a truer picture still, compare last year's number of graduates (27,720) with the size of that same class six years earlier, as seventh-graders (44,120). That group of students shrank by more than 37%, even though districtwide enrollment has been rising.

Throughout California, schools have made a science of underreporting their true dropout rates. The fabrication is so institutionalized that, year after year, school systems, including L.A. Unified, have cited low dropout rates as a sure sign that schools have improved. The truth is that any school has been able to make a high dropout rate go away simply by gaming the numbers.

A federal study in the mid-1990s estimated that California undercounted dropouts in one year by more than 70%. Officially, the state defines dropouts as students who leave school before graduating and who do not have their academic records forwarded to another school within 45 school days.

But reporting practices and deadlines string out this process further. The result is that schools have up to 18 months to locate missing students and then can use any number of loopholes to avoid counting them as dropouts.

Practices in place to identify and report dropouts virtually guarantee inaccurate data. A student could miss an entire year of school, for example, then show up for one day in June, and not be counted as a dropout. Nor is a student who is arrested and sent to juvenile hall considered a dropout -- on the theory that because juvenile hall has classes, being sent there is like transferring to a new school. The district doesn't even monitor dropout rates before high school, so a student who leaves during or immediately after middle school isn't counted as a dropout. If a counselor hears from another student that a missing student has, say, moved back to Mexico and is attending school there, that's enough to eliminate the child from the dropout rolls if the counselor deems it so. Moreover, the state never audits a school's dropout statistics. Neither does L.A. Unified. So in reality, with recording data, anything goes.

Citing privacy concerns, the school district won't allow reporters to match its dropout records with actual students -- a policy that makes analyzing its reporting techniques difficult. One student I was able to track, a Manual Arts dropout named Yecenia, who asked that her last name not be used, went with her boyfriend to Texas and therefore didn't attend school from mid-May to February of the following year. She was never listed as a dropout, however, even though she clearly considered herself one.

School administrators often object to comparing the number of incoming seventh-graders with the number of graduates from that same group six years later. They contend that many of the disappeared students aren't dropouts, that they've simply transferred to other schools. But if students were transferring to other schools and then graduating rather than dropping out, the cumulative numbers would back that up: The students would show up somewhere. They don't.

Other school districts offer the same sorry excuses to justify unbelievably low reported dropout rates. A state education staff member made a stark assessment of the situation. "Someone's lying, it's just that simple. Or someone's underreporting -- I guess that's a better way of saying it," said Marco Orlando of the state's counseling and student support office.

"Obviously school districts don't want to acknowledge they have dropout problems and individual schools don't, because it's a bad reflection on public schools," Orlando said.

One way that schools avoid labeling students dropouts is by shunting would-be dropouts off to adult schools. But that's frequently more of a statistical dodge than a solution. Fewer than 4% of first-year, adult-school students either complete graduation credits or obtain a General Educational Development certificate, according to data released last year in response to a Public Records Act request.

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