As California tries out a new, improved way of measuring the dropout rate, school districts are stuck juggling the old method and the new one in the quest to figure out the severity of the problem.
It sounds like a numbers issues, but it goes to the heart of a very human one: Are kids slipping away or not? And are schools getting better at tackling the problem?
California schools began reporting a different way of tracking dropouts that tracks what happened to the students who entered high school as freshmen four years ago. Schools used to track dropouts by gathering data about how many students disappeared one year at a time, then estimating a total rate.
The new method is being pushed by the Obama Administration, which wants states to measure dropouts and graduation rates the same way. It is widely believed to be more accurate because it accounts for students who transfer in and out of schools over time. Next year it will be used to calculate graduation rates under No Child Left Behind.
"It's not only more accurate but it's more meaningful," said Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project. "What we really want to know is, when students enter high school, how many will graduate? Before we would just kind of estimate what we thought that rate would be."
Based on the new calculations, the San Diego Unified dropout rate is 12.8 percent. That ranks as the second lowest dropout rate in the state among large urban school districts, it announced today.
It also has the fourth highest graduation rate, behind San Francisco, Garden Grove and Long Beach. (Graduation rates do not exactly mirror dropout rates because some students count as neither dropouts nor graduates, such as kids who transfer to schools outside California or get special education certificates that don't meet the same requirements as a traditional diploma.)
Because this method of tracking dropouts is new, we can't compare it to the old ones to see if things are improving. So schools are also looking at the old method of tracking dropouts. Under the old method, just 7.5 percent of San Diego Unified students dropped out in 2009-2010, the most recent data now available. That is a decrease from past years when its dropout rate hovered around 9 percent.
Deputy Superintendent Nellie Meyer credited several programs, including door-to-door outreach to find students who disappeared and online programs that help students make up classes they failed, for helping to whittle down the dropout rate over time.
The San Diego Unified numbers mirror a trend of dropping dropout rates across the county and state. (For more on the countywide trends, check out the Union-Tribune, which did a nice job rounding up the news from school districts across the region.)
But the numbers also reflect a familiar and stubborn problem: Across San Diego County, African-American and Latino students are still dropping out at much higher rates (26.7 and 19.7 percent) than their white and Asian classmates (10 and 8.4 percent), based on the new method.
I'd love your help sorting through all this data. Please check out the dropout and graduation rates and let me know if you see something unusual or interesting to delve into.
Emily Alpert is the education reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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