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Graduation rates rise, but nearly 140,000 won't finish high school

Students at Costaño Elementary School in East Palo alto Deanne Fitzmaurice for California WatchStudents at Costaño Elementary School in East Palo alto.

Nearly 140,000 students who were enrolled in the ninth grade in the 2007-08 school year in California will not graduate from high school this month.

By contrast, some 377,498 students will receive their diplomas. The difference amounts to a loss of an average of 775 students from school in California each day. 

Those estimates come from the 2011 edition of Diplomas Count, issued this week by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which also publishes Education Week.

These grim figures are somewhat offset by the fact that California's graduation rates have actually improved by 5.5 percent over the past decade, according to the report. Nationally, graduation rates are now the highest they have been since the 1980s, according to the report, which based its analysis on figures for the 2007-08 school year.

"This marks a significant turnaround following two consecutive years of declines and stagnation," Education Week wrote.

Although rates have improved for all racial and ethnic groups, graduation rates for black and Latino students still lag behind those of Asians and whites, especially in California. 

According to the report, the graduation rate in California was 83 percent for whites and 86 percent for Asian American students, compared with 55.8 percent for black students and 59.2 percent for Hispanics.

Arun Ramanathan, executive director of the Oakland-based Education Trust-West, said these low graduation rates are especially devastating in a state where 60 percent of its 6.2 million public school students are black and Latino. "These gaps represent not only a lost opportunity for millions of students, but they also a scary foreshadowing of the state's future," he said.

He said California needs to think more rationally about "how we invest resources and not continue to reinvest in strategies that haven't significantly changed these numbers for the last 20 or 30 years." 

According to the analysis, California has a slightly higher graduation rate than the national average (72.8 percent vs. 71.7 percent). But it still ranked 24th compared with other states, between Colorado with a slightly higher graduation rate and North Carolina with a slightly lower one.

The state with the highest graduation rate was New Jersey with 86.9 percent, followed by Vermont (82.7 percent) and Wisconsin (81.3 percent).

The report also found boys drop out at a much higher rate than girls, 74.7 percent vs. 67.7 percent. 

There are many different ways to calculate graduation and dropout rates, all of which can produce different figures. The Diploma Counts report used the Cumulative Promotion Index method, based on the Common Core of Data, an annual census of public schools conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. The method looks at the proportion of students who drop out between ninth and 10th grade, then projects their attrition rates for the succeeding grades.

California is working on establishing a longitudinal data system known as CALPADS that will track each student, which should allow California to precisely measure graduation and dropout rates. But the system has been mired in technical difficulties. To the dismay of some educators and business leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown is recommending eliminating funding for the system altogether.  

Ramanathan said that without a way to track individual students, it is difficult know why some students drop out and others don't and how to devise effective strategies accordingly. In the absence of a longitudinal tracking system, he said, "we have to construct (graduation rates) from random data taken from here and there."

UPDATE: For a more in-depth review of different drop-out methodologies, and a critique of the EdWeek report, see this post by Kathryn Baron from Top-Ed.

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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