New dropout rates may be accurate but tell you little and could get worse

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

State-level school graduation and dropout statistics have always been squishy, and the most recent numbers, from California’s Department of Education, are not immune to some of the familiar problems.

While far more accurate and reliable than anything we’ve had before, they can’t capture all the uncertainties of student mobility or cut through all the fog of educational definitions. Nor do they tell anything about the quality of the education those students have gotten, another area where there’s lots of numbers and even more fog. And of course, they say nothing directly about the shabby support their schools have been getting from the state or the voters; they only reflect it dimly and indirectly.

The latest numbers, from CALPADS, the new California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, are similar to what we’ve had before: Roughly 74 percent of students who started ninth grade in 2006 graduated four years later, in 2010; 18 percent dropped out. The balance – some 8 percent – is said to include students who are still in school, non-degree special-ed students and those who passed their GED, the General Educational Development tests.  Girls graduated at a higher rate than boys.

And of course, there’s no telling how many more of those listed as dropouts will get their GED or some other form of education or training, either here or elsewhere, that may never be recorded by the state’s data system.

Nonetheless, a lot of people are cheering that the new system is working. For years CALPADS, which is based on individual student identifiers and thus can track students from school to school, was beset by both technical problems and political resistance from two governors. That it’s now up and running is itself an achievement.

As was predictable, the new numbers show the familiar ethnic gaps. Blacks and Latinos graduate at significantly lower rates and drop out in greater proportions than non-Hispanic whites and Asians, who have the best numbers of any ethnic groups – 89 percent of Asians graduated with their class; only 8 percent dropped out. For whites, the comparable numbers are 83 percent and 12 percent.

Some 59 percent of African Americans and 68 percent of Latinos graduated within four years; among blacks 30 percent dropped out, and among Latinos it’s 23 percent. If English learners aren’t counted, the Latino graduation rate rises to 75 percent. But none of it is anything to cheer about – except maybe next year in hindsight, when we get the 2011 numbers, which may well be worse.

What may be most notable in these numbers, however, and certainly most significant, is that just one third of the graduates are non-Hispanic whites; Latinos make up over 41 percent, Asians another 10 percent. This is our economic future and the real challenge to our education system.

The remarks of state school superintendent Tom Torlakson were as predictable as the numbers. “Sadly,” said he in his department’s handout, “the graduation rates of these subgroups of students are too low and their dropout rates are too high.” He’s right, of course, but other than issuing pronouncements, there’s not much he can do.

On the other side of the fence, you can probably expect the voucher crowd, the charter school boosters and the other privatizers to seize on the numbers to show how the system isn’t serving what used to be called minorities, or maybe anybody.  The fact that, according to the state, some 17,000 eighth grade students (of some 470,000) , roughly 3.6 percent, dropped out in 2008-9 before they even got to ninth grade, doesn’t make the picture any brighter.

But the dropout numbers are tricky; while other states now have individual student tracking systems similar to CALPADS and thus should pick up interstate transfers, there’s often no way to track immigrant students who’ve moved back to their home countries.

In the past four years, a million illegal aliens have left the country, some because of tougher immigration law enforcement, some because of the recession. Unless their new schools – Mexican or Salvadoran or Honduran – ask for their American school records, no data system records what’s happened to the children they’ve taken back with them.

CALPADS also reports a 56 percent graduation rate for students classified as English learners, which on its face sounds impossible. How can someone classified as an English learner complete high school? The answer, according to state officials, is that an English learner is anyone who at some time in her high school career was so listed. Which is to say that the apparently low percentage may in fact reflect a great success.

But more probably, the numbers really tell very little. If the English learners who didn’t graduate only arrived in this country a year or two earlier, you wouldn’t expect them to graduate – would be shocked if many of them did.

The Department of Education warns that because both the graduation and dropout numbers were computed differently from any in the past, no comparisons with prior years can be made. They will, however, be useful for future comparisons.

Yet given California’s rapidly declining school funding – the curtailed school calendar in many districts, the bigger classes, the shrinking number of counselors and reading specialists – and the voters’ apparent indifference in the face of it, and given the shrinking opportunities in the state’s higher education system, we may soon look back on this year’s numbers, poor as they are, with longing.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report, in which this column also appeared, and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.











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12 Responses to “New dropout rates may be accurate but tell you little and could get worse”

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  1. Kim Kenne on Aug 24, 2011 at 7:10 am08/24/2011 7:10 am

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    Under this year’s system, every student is assigned to a cohort based on the first school year they were in 9th grade  (a new data item being tracked in CALPADs)- whether they transferred in or not.  So every child is in a cohort – the issue is that cohort dropout and graduation rates are not changed after they are reported – in other words, 09-10 rates have been reported this month.  Unless they are modified next year, when additional students who started ninth grade in 06-07 either graduate or dropout, the results for those additional students will never be counted.  Which is fine in regards to graduation if we only want to give ourselves credit for students who graduate in 4 years but not fine in regards to dropouts – we can’t pretend these students didn’t dropout.

    I don’t believe the NCES graduation rate numbers (and their complement which shows the dropout rate) are squishy at all.  But the new ‘cohort’ data leaves some students out. 

  2. CarolineSF on Aug 24, 2011 at 6:59 am08/24/2011 6:59 am

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    You’re basically making my point, Michael, which is that there are a whole mess of different systems that can’t be compared to each other. Your original claim that there’s some E-Z control that’s being magically applied every time someone compares U.S. grad rates to other nations’ does not hold up.
    Now you’re getting into college comparisons. But college here is a massive financial burden — the expense of a lifetime to many families, besides their home. College in some/many/all other developed nations is very inexpensive or free. So, again, those comparisons are entirely unsound.

  3. Michael G. on Aug 22, 2011 at 6:51 pm08/22/2011 6:51 pm

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    Okay, Caroline, let me try to clarify.
    A person in Japan finishes 12 years of school.  The last 3 years (which ARE optional and NOT  free) are high school just as the last 4 years of grades 1-12 are considered HS in the US but here they are NOT optional and ARE free.  The Japanese curriculum is quite rigorous compared to that of the typical US HS – possibly comparable to AP, and yet still 94% of Japanese kids finish those last 3 years of HS for a total of 12 years in school.  How is it then wrong to compare Japanese HS graduation rates to that of US kids?
    To complicate things still further, a lot of countries’ HS systems include an extra year for those going on to college so that anyone in the US applying to a university is strongly advised to have completed two years at a community college before applying.  One year to make up for the US HS inadequacies and another year to get ready for college.  So, HS completion in some countries is equivalent to finishing a year or more of community college here.  The university education in many countries is only 3 years and has no electives since you are supposedly an educated person before you enter college and don’t need a lot of courses to fill in the gaps.  The result is that while more kids enter our colleges in the US, fewer emerge than in most OECD countries and while it is improving here, it is improving faster elsewhere so relatively, we are slipping back there as well.

  4. CarolineSF on Aug 22, 2011 at 4:59 pm08/22/2011 4:59 pm

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    That makes no sense, Michael, and I’m sorry I’m not providing references, but I don’t need to, unless you dispute the situation that I describe.
    This is so methodologically unsound that I don’t even see how you can type it:
    they look at secondary school graduation rates or the percentage of 15-19 year-olds in school or the % of the population with HS or above to get comparable data.  Finishing high school means the same in Japan (where the 9th grade is the last year that school is required and free) as it does in the US (where 12th grade is the last grade it is required and free).

  5. MichaelG on Aug 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm08/22/2011 3:29 pm

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    Graduation rates have improved in the US over the last generation but they have shot up in other OECD countries far more so the US has slipped from 2nd in HS graduation rate among the OECD to about 27th among 18-24 year-olds.  Please see reference:
    From above:
    “• According to OECD’s calculations, the United States’ high school graduation rate (76 percent) is below the OECD average of 82 percent, and well below the graduation rates in Greece, Germany, Finland, Japan, Korea, Norway, and Ireland, all of which had graduation rates above 90 percent (OECD, 2007b).”
    “• The United States ranks first among the 30 OECD countries for the percent of 55- to 64-year-olds who have a high school degree or equivalent. However, the United States drops to 11th among 25- to 34-year-olds. In contrast, Korea ranks 24th among 55- to -64-year-olds but first among 25- to 34-year-olds (OECD, 2006).”
    The following chart in op. cit. shows the US at 27th in HS graduation rates.  So by not improving we are continually falling to the back of the pack.
    BTW, what do school librarians have to do with HS graduation rates?  I love libraries but I am unaware of any correlation – are you?
    I realize this isn’t a research journal but it isn’t THAT hard to use Google to obtain reliable sources.  I am sure there is plenty of room for disagreement even working from the same sources but still.  After all, we have the world-renowned and superior role model of Mr. Fensterwald (whom I think we can all agree is a non-pareil in the world of blogging) to live up to!

  6. MichaelG on Aug 22, 2011 at 3:10 pm08/22/2011 3:10 pm

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    The topic at hand is the % finishing HS or equivalent not the last year of required school.  People collecting this data are aware of these different national requirements so they look at secondary school graduation rates or the percentage of 15-19 year-olds in school or the % of the population with HS or above to get comparable data.  Finishing high school means the same in Japan (where the 9th grade is the last year that school is required and free) as it does in the US (where 12th grade is the last grade it is required and free).  Despite the competitive entrance requirements and the cost to the family in Japan for high school tuition their secondary school graduation rate (after 12 years of school) is variously reported as around 94% +/- 2%.  The US HS completion rate is all over the map from 69% to 89% variously reported by reputable organizations such as UNICEF, US Dept. of Ed., OECD, (US) Bureau of the Census, etc.  It is pretty generally below almost all other OECD countries.
    There is a disconnect between the drop out rate and % of 18-24 year-olds finishing HS in the data available and I think that is because a number of other avenues are open to finish high school including GED’s which probably appeals to people who drop out of HS and either realize how hard it is without a HS diploma or just mature and buckle down.  I think it is great that you took the time to read my humble offering and I confess to negligence in not posting sources for others to follow up on and verify as I usually do.  So thanks for that but on the other hand you have provided no references at all.  None.  Zero.

  7. Richard Moore on Aug 22, 2011 at 1:08 pm08/22/2011 1:08 pm

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    Wow. Even Peter Schrag doesn’t bother with history. 10% graduated in 1910. 50% graduated in 1950. We decided everyone should go to school, then decided that everyone in school could go to college. So we did away with vocational classes, which is one way we kept them in school, and those kids started dropping out. Doesn’t history matter?
    My graduating class in 1965 was a fraction (2/3) of what it was when I was a freshman. My kids education when they graduated in 1996 and 1998 was far superior to what I was ever exposed to. On the other hand, while I got a librarian in high school and they got one too, now the school has one librarian for the whole district. Clerks run the school libraries. California has the lowest level  of school and public library service in the nation. We would have to build 1000 public libraries and hire 5000 school librarians, just to be average.
    And then the old canard about race and achievement. The gap is due almost entirely to poverty.
    But do go on debating the marginal dropout rates — it beats the hell out of discussing what is really going on in the schools.

  8. CarolineSF on Aug 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm08/22/2011 12:49 pm

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    Michael G., I’m curious — where did you get that misinformation? Because obviously if false information is being passed around, it needs to be halted and refuted.

  9. CarolineSF on Aug 22, 2011 at 12:48 pm08/22/2011 12:48 pm

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    U.S. dropout rates can’t be compared to other industrialized countries — not because of child poverty but because of entirely different types of school systems. An example:
    In the Netherlands, students on the vocational track and the arts track (I just learned that that one exists) graduate, properly, with a degree, after the equivalent of our 10th grade, at or about age 16. So, to clarify: A student on one of those tracks in the Netherlands who leaves school after 10th grade at or about age 16 is a graduate. A student in any HS in the U.S. who leaves school after 10th grade is a dropout. So, clear? They cannot be compared; it simply can’t be done.
    Other industrialized nations have variations on that system, and I don’t have any kind of chart comparing them. In Switzerland it’s also age 16. In Japan I’ve heard it’s 8th grade. Does anyone have more detailed info?
    But again, to repeat and clarify: It is not possible to legitimately and honestly compare U.S. high school graduation rates to those of other industrialized nations for that reason.

  10. Peter Schrag on Aug 22, 2011 at 11:35 am08/22/2011 11:35 am

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    Do we know how many of the 404,000 who graduated in 2010 using the NCES numbers weren’t part of any cohort? How many transferred into a California high school during the prior three years. I haven’t checked this with SDE but it seems to be just as squishy as the CALPADS number, no?

  11. Michael G. on Aug 22, 2011 at 11:08 am08/22/2011 11:08 am

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    While US dropout rates are by far the worst among industrialized countries,  I don’t see a real understanding of the root causes since it is much worse among the poor here than among the poor in other countries with similar or even higher rates of child poverty.  I hear a lot of correlations with ESL or poverty but there must be some causal factor(s) underlying that of which I have heard nothing.  I am going to hazard some guesses since I don’t think anyone really knows but I am open to new information.
    1.  No one really follows up on these kids.  Sometimes they just move without forwarding address, sometimes the truant officer is overworked or negligent, sometimes the kid is a real troublemaker and everyone is a bit relieved to see him or her not show up.
    2.  They have been socially promoted for 8 years and suddenly hit HS where it stops and they are too far behind to catch up, particularly with math.  In that case they may be making a rational decision – “If I have to finish algebra and geometry to finish HS then I have no chance so I might as well go work.”
    3.  They see education as unrelated to what they expect to do in manual labor along the lines of their parents.
    4. No adult in the school system is really held responsible for dropout rates so “it’s not in my job description” let’s everyone off the hook.
    Those are my guesses – any answers?
    I talked to one teacher who told me of a very bright ELL in HS who was very good in math but suddenly stopped showing up.  The teacher called the uncle who was taking care of the kid. The uncle said he pulled him out of HS because he didn’t need an education to be a waiter.  They had a 2 bedroom apartment with carpeting, hot and cold running water, and indoor plumbing which was more than the uncle could have imagined before in the old country.  The uncle’s income as a waiter paid for everything – anything more was unimaginable luxury so why keep him in school?  I wonder why the school didn’t follow up – aren’t there laws against this sort of thing?

  12. Kim Kenne on Aug 22, 2011 at 10:04 am08/22/2011 10:04 am

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    I’m reposting a comment I made when the graduation and dropout rates were first posted a week ago (see below).  I have spent the last two years working with CALPADS in a medium-sized school district.  The NCES graduation rate that we have been using for a number of years is accurate.  And using its complement (100 – grad rate) gives an accurate dropout rate.

    This new graduation rate (imposed on states by 2008 changes to NCLB) is inferior to our previous graduation rate here in California (using the NCES formula).  This new cohort rate only looks at students who have graduated with their class in four years.  While I understand wanting to have this number, what happens to counting the students who take 5 or 6 years to finish high school?  If you look at Dataquest, with the NCES/old method, the state has 404,987 graduates for the 09-10 school year.  Per the new method, there were only 386, 222.  Where are the other 18,765?  These students will probably never show up in a graduation rate since their ‘cohort’ is in the past (prior to 09-10).  The real problem is there when we use the new “cohort dropout rate”.  The same math applies.  Rather than 98,475 state dropouts, there are only 94,312 (4163 missing and potentially never to be counted as dropouts). 
    The real dropout rate for the 09-10 cohort for the state is 19.6% (100% minus the NCES grad rate of 80.4) – higher than the 18.2% the state is using.  In my district, the difference is even larger – our old cohort dropout rate is 24.8% rather than 16.3% with the new rate.
    I hope that CA will continue with the old, NCES rate – which is more accurate for dropouts than the new.

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