On his second day in Sacramento trying to convince lawmakers to back his takeover of public schools, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cited a new report that paints a bleak picture of graduation rates in the district.
The study, conducted by the research arm of the publication Education Week, concluded that only about 44% of students in Los Angeles Unified School District graduate from high school in four years. Of the country's 50 largest public school districts, only five placed lower than Los Angeles, the study found.
The report -- and the mayor's use of it to bolster his case -- drew quick ire from top school district officials, who rejected the study's findings as inaccurate and outdated.
"The first thing that people in this town need to know," is that the mayor's program "is being sold on false information," said Supt. Roy Romer. "It's a terrible way to treat people, to give them false information. The mayor should know better."
The Education Week conclusions, based on raw enrollment data, echoed those of similar reports conducted in recent years. The most influential of those -- by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and UCLA -- found that 48% of L.A. Unified students who entered ninth grade in 1999 graduated four years later.
Villaraigosa has used the Harvard-UCLA study and others like it to criticize the elected Board of Education that runs the district. On Tuesday he added the new report to his arsenal, raising it in meetings with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers.
"People realize something needs to be done. That this status quo is just not working for our kids," Villaraigosa said in an interview. "This is the fourth study to confirm now what I've been saying for a year: that the dropout rate is somewhere around 50% in L.A. Unified. The school district has negated those statistics time and again."
For months, Romer and board members have tried in vain to convince the mayor that he is painting an inaccurate picture of the district's dropout problem by concluding that any student who doesn't graduate after four years is a dropout.
District and state officials, using 2004-05 figures and a narrower definition of what constitutes a dropout, estimate that about 24% of Los Angeles Unified students drop out of high school.
A Los Angeles Times series tracing dropouts at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys concluded that, although accurate numbers are difficult to calculate, dropout numbers are far greater than state and district numbers suggest.
District and state officials say that formulas used by many researchers to estimate the district's graduation rates are imperfect, because they do not account for students who withdraw from district schools and then earn diplomas elsewhere.
To get more accurate numbers, said Keric Ashley, director of data management for the California Department of Education, states need to start using systems that track each student individually. California is developing such a system.
Romer said Tuesday that whatever the actual numbers, L.A. Unified is no different than other large school systems struggling with high dropout rates.
"Urban districts have a terrible problem on this, no doubt about it. New York has it. We have it. Chicago has it. We know that, and that's why we're working on it so hard."
The Education Week study found that New York City has a graduation rate of nearly 39% and put Chicago, the nation's third-largest district, at 52%. Both Chicago and New York have school districts controlled by mayors.
Robert Collins, chief instructional officer for L.A. Unified's secondary schools, questioned the report's use of enrollment data from the 2002-03 school year, saying the district has made strides in recent years to increase the number of students who earn diplomas and to improve record keeping in the sprawling district.
Romer said the district has taken steps to improve education in high schools and stem the flow of dropouts. "We're going to go after this with hammers."
Starting in July, Romer said, the district plans to hire additional counselors for at-risk students and implement remedial classes for middle school students not prepared for algebra. The Times series found that not passing algebra is a major reason that students drop out.
Romer also said that students who fall behind in math and English classes will now be required to take additional classes after school or on Saturdays.
Statewide, the report pegged the graduation rate at 71%, which narrowly outpaced the average for all states. It also reflected a wide, persistent achievement gap along racial lines, finding that in California and throughout the country, far fewer African American and Latino students graduate on time than their white and Asian peers.