New dropout rates: Big progress or screwy data?

The California Department of Education just released its latest dropout numbers — the second year of data for a new (and supposedly improved) data system that tracks individual students with unique ID numbers wherever they go in California.

If you take the data at face value, the Oakland school district is well on its way to solving one of its most serious challenges: From one year to the next, its estimated high school dropout rate fell from 36 percent to 28 percent.

So I called Karl Scheff, who manages the Educational Demographics Office at the California Department of Education, and asked what we should make of this swing.

“It’s a pretty big jump,” he said, after a pause. Then Scheff explained that districts are becoming more familiar with the new system — meaning that they are sending the state more accurate “exit codes” each time a student leaves a school.

If that’s true, and the latest estimates are more accurate, then maybe it’s good news after all. Well, relatively speaking. These new figures show that 35 percent of the district’s African-American high school students (down from 40 percent) and 27 percent of its Latino high school students (down from 37 percent) quit school early. 

I put together a spreadsheet that compares last year’s estimates, by school (based on what happened during the 2006-07 school year) and this year’s (based on 2007-08 data). You can find it here. Look for the huge differences at some Oakland schools, such as Youth Empowerment School, Oakland Tech and MetWest High School. The new estimates are in blue font.

DATA NOTES: The year-to-year differences listed in Column H, though in percentage format, are percentage point differences, not percent changes. Also: Students who enroll in an adult school, or who take more than four years to graduate, are not counted as dropouts in this system. Middle school dropouts are counted, but they are not included in the overall dropout estimate.

image from mario zucca illustration’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • oak261

    Nice compilation of data. Unfortunately we should be very suspicious of these results. I, for one, am suspicious of the apparent changes for OUSD as a whole and for specific schools that are so wildly out of line with the county trend, let alone the state trend. If the apparent trend is real and not due to accounting inconsistencies, one could look for associated shifts in CST scores in the years leading up to the typical dropout years, as well as shifts in overall enrollment.

  • cranky teacher

    Oak261, if the drop is because of better accounting this year, which it sounds like, then we won’t see any changes for CST.

    As for the variations, remember that some of these small schools are VERY small and thus can see huge shifts based on both accounting changes (i.e., a counselor joining the staff who knows what they’re doing) and on year-to-year differences between incoming classes.

    YES, for example, has only 200 students.

    Oakland Tech was clearly an anomaly last year — no way they had almost 2.5 times as high a dropout rate as Skyline, or a higher rate than the district average. This year’s numbers seem much more logical.

  • Donna

    Katy; At what point are students assigned ID numbers? I am thinking about my daughter who has gone from private to public to private and back to public school. Would the system track her, or would she be assigned a new number each time she entered a public school?

    Also, is the racial classification in these statistics the result of a forced choice categorization? At Tech, my daughter knows quite a few multiracial/multiethnic students. It seems to me that a forced single choice for a multiracial/multiethnic person is something that might change over the years.

  • Katy Murphy

    The way I understand it, your daughter should keep the same ID number throughout her school career. In practice, though, she might be mistakenly assigned a new one when she returns to public school — or even listed as a dropout if she goes from public to private in middle or high school, unless the clerk or principal is expressly notified about the change.

    Also, I believe there is a multiracial/other category already.

  • Chris Vernon

    What we, the parents, have understood from Oakland Tech Principal Sheilagh Andujar is that the reporting of dropout information within OUSD has improved over the past several years. In the past, when a student left OUSD (regardless of whether they moved to another district or dropped out) they were coded as being a dropout. With the very mobile student population in Oakland, this made a big difference in the accuracy of the statistics.

    In addition, at Tech there have been significant efforts to keep students in school (algebra summer camps, CAHSEE preparation classes which are trumpeted by a new active group of African American parents known as the African American Student Action Planners, small learning communities for 9th graders, an extensive afterschool program, and more).

    So, at least at one of the 3 remaining comprehensive high schools, the drop is partly due to better reporting but also due to significant efforts by the school community to improve the situation.

  • oak261

    Since the reporting standards have changed only in the past year or so, I wouldn’t vouch for any real improvement in trends for several years, that is until consistent tracking methods are used for several years in a row. Also, be wary of this: given NCLB pressures, schools and districts have a vested, and financial interest in reporting lower numbers. It probably wouldn’t be the firsts time if we learned that some schools or districts were leaning on the scales!

  • oak261

    I want to respectfully challenge the assertion by Chis Vernon, that “the drop is partly due to better reporting but also due to significant efforts by the school community to improve the situation.” There is no way to know the difference from these results. It is possible that the entire effect is due to the changes in accounting. It is optimistic to hope that there is fundamental improvement going on due to the earnest efforts, but remember that as a nation we have been working on these problems for over 40 years, and the advances have been incremental and modest at best. Many efforts have failed, and only some have born fruit.

  • Jeanne Gumbleton

    There is a discussion going on at http://www.tinyurl.com/Op2LearnFB regarding Brown vs. Board of Education’s 55th Anniversary. How far have we really come in providing access and quality in education for every child?

  • Oak261

    I looked at the B v B discussion. Access has definitely become much more egalitarian, right? What has happened to the overall quality of education over the same period — another question, and I don’t know the answer. Regarding the “facts on the ground”, it is Interesting how most of the most rapid gains in high school graduation rates occurred from the 40’s to the mid-60’s. Then little change in the rate since then.

  • Robert Valentine

    Berkeley Daily Planet – Letter to Editors



    Editors, Daily Planet:

    In response to the May 14 article, “Berkeley Dropout Rates Still High for Minorities”:

    Berkeley High School has a “college adviser,” but no “technical trades,” or “vocational” counselor. Who in the school district administration made this decision given the high drop-out rate?

    Not every Berkeley High student is destined for college. The drop-out rate is not that of students, but administrators and school board members who dropped out of teaching trades and vocations, eliminating, for example, shop classes where students learned carpentry, metal, electrical, auto mechanics, welding, and masonry. And while the drop-out rate is cited as high for minorities, it’s equally high for non-minorities who simply disappear from Berkeley High without follow-up.

    The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but public school administrators are wasting the use of hands.

    Your May 14 article, “Berkeley Dropout Rates Still High for Minorities,” quotes the California state school chief Jack 0’Connell: “We need to build bridges to colleges and community colleges.” The chief made no mention of trades, technical or vocational schools. And he wonders why the public high school drop-out rate is high, and getting higher? Jack is blinded by his doctorate in education, if not master’s degree.

    Yes, there might be a few classes (computer and theater arts) with hands-on training, but such are available only to a few.

    If by the 10th grade a regular course of high school study during a regular day included hands-on, technical and vocational training, numerous students would discover their actual gifts, talents, abilities and intelligence. Such is often not discovered siting in chair watching a chalkboard, listening to a lecture.

    Four long years at Berkeley High—from the 9th to 12th grade—with nothing but academics for the majority of students is four years of boredom. Anyone reading this who has any connection to Berkeley High will know of at least one student if not more who simply stopped attending, finding the education one-dimensional, ignorant, and irrelevant.

    Why have numerous school administrators and school board members failed? Most have never worked in a trade or technical field, or outside a Monday to Friday, eight to five job. Such are completely unaware of the diversity of hands-on occupations available for a high school student to pursue.

    The only way to stop the high school drop-out rate is to remove college and university trained administrators, and instead hire leaders from the trades, vocations and technical fields. Such leaders would renew and inspire students to find their true abilities and intelligence.

    The emphasis during a high school education should be to prepare the majority of students to enter into a two year trade, technical, or vocational school so that at the completion of such they can earn a livable wage.

    Robert Valentine