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1 in 4 quit high school in California

State officials release results of a new system that tracks dropouts. But the numbers tell only part of the story.

July 17, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg and Howard Blume | Times Staff Writers

Deploying a long-promised tool to track high school dropouts, the state released numbers Wednesday estimating that 1 in 4 California students -- and 1 in 3 in Los Angeles -- quit school. The rates are considerably higher than previously acknowledged but lower than some independent estimates.

The figures are based on a new statewide tracking system that relies on identification numbers that were issued to California public school students beginning in fall 2006.

The ID numbers allow the state Department of Education to track students who leave one school and enroll in another in California, even if it is in a different district or city. In the past, the inability to accurately track such students gave schools a loophole, allowing them to say that departing students had transferred to another school when, in some cases, they had dropped out.

The new system -- which will cost $33 million over the next three years, in addition to the millions spent for the initial development -- promises to eventually provide a far better way to understand where students go, and why. But state and school district officials acknowledged that the data initially available Wednesday, after a final one-day delay, were limited in usefulness.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, July 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Dropouts: An article in Thursday's Section A misstated the four-year dropout rate for Palisades Charter High School as 2.5%, which is a one-year rate. The four-year figure is 11.6%.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, July 19, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Dropout rate: An article about California's high school dropout rate in Thursday's Section A misstated a remark by Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara. Rumberger said one reason for an increase in the dropout rate is the growing population of Latinos and English learners. He did not say it was because of an increase in Latino immigrants.

"I think as the system stabilizes, you will get better data," said Esther Wong, assistant superintendent for planning, assessment and research in the Los Angeles Unified School District. For now, she said, the numbers tell only part of the story, albeit more accurately than in the past.

Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction, presented the new data, based on the 2006-07 school year, as a quantum leap forward in understanding the nature of the dropout problem. But, he said, "no one will argue that the number of dropouts is good news. . . . It represents an enormous loss of potential."

State data analysts were able to come up with a four-year "derived" dropout rate, which estimates how many students drop out over the course of their high school careers.

For the state overall, it was 24.2%, up substantially from the 13.9% calculated for the previous school year using an older, discredited method. Statewide, 67.6% of students graduated and 8.2% were neither graduates nor dropouts. The last category included those who transferred to private schools or left the state.

School districts have until the end of August to correct data, so figures could change.

The statistics highlight a problem that is getting worse in California, said Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at UC Santa Barbara who directs the California Dropout Research Project.

Even using the old system of measurement, he said, the number of dropouts has grown by 83% over five years while the number of high school graduates has gone up only 9%.

"So that's sobering, it's really sobering," he said.

Rumberger attributed the trend to three primary factors: an increase in Latino immigrants, who are among the most likely to drop out; the raising of academic standards; and insufficient funding for public education.

For Los Angeles Unified, the new dropout rate was 33.6%. The rate was 25.3% under the old system in 2005-06.

Critics, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have said that as many as half of Los Angeles Unified students drop out. But a recent report by an independent research group, Policy Analysis for California Education, put the district's dropout rate at 25.7%.

O'Connell chose Birmingham High School in Van Nuys for his announcement, noting that it was the focus of a Times series on dropouts in 2006. He said he was particularly concerned by data showing a dropout rate of 41.6% for black students and 30.3% for Latino students, compared with 15.2% for whites and 10.2% for Asians.

"This is a crisis," he said.

In Los Angeles Unified, African American students dropped out at a lower rate than their counterparts statewide. That was not true of the other three groups.

Among large, comprehensive L.A. high schools, the highest dropout rates were recorded at Jefferson, 58%; Belmont, 56%; Locke, 50.9%; Crenshaw, 50%; and Roosevelt, 49.6%.

Those with the lowest rates were Palisades Charter High, 2.5%; Granada Hills Charter, 6.4%; Canoga Park, 11%; Cleveland, 12.8%; El Camino, 13%; Taft, 13.1%; Chatsworth, 14.5%; and Fairfax, 14.9%.

State officials acknowledge that even the latest figures are less than ideal. The four-year rate is based not on students' actual progress over four years but on one year's worth of data for all four grades. In the spring of 2011, data will be released based on students' actual journey over four years.

Moreover, it remains difficult to say why students left school because codes designed to explain that, listing choices such as "graduated," "died" and "no show," are based on a different time period than the dropout rate itself.

Eventually, the two sets of figures will be synchronized, but the state was unable to do that before the release of the latest dropout figures.

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