Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times included the boastful headline, “Dropout Rate Declines Almost 17% in L.A. Schools.” Officials at Los Angeles Unified School District crowed that the latest data demonstrated “the results of three years of work.” Part of the credit goes to duplicate student records which accounted for extra enrollees who never saw graduation. But part of the credit also goes to specific interventions put to use by LAUSD to ID and work with at-risk students.
Overall, the drop-out rate for the 2007-08 school year was 26.4 percent in the City of Angels, down from 31.7 percent a year ago. The LA Times reports that it was one of the largest improvements in the Golden State here.
I don’t want to take anything away from the educators out in Los Angeles. I applaud them for recognizing the long-term problems caused by the city’s drop-out factories and a history that only had two of every three high schoolers graduating. They should be encouraged by these first year numbers, spurred on to believe that major improvement is possible when one dedicates the time and resources to it. But it send a dangerous signal when we are slapping each other on the backs and declaring mission accomplished because of one year of promising data.
It all begs an important question — how do you recognize progress while recognizing that the end result is still far in the offing? How do we applaud the first sprint in what is going to be a marathon race? And how do we “prove” our work is genuine?
Don’t get me wrong, reducing the drop-out rate by 5.3 percent is recognition-worthy. But in doing so, we lose sight of the fact that more than 25 percent of LAUSD students are not graduating from high school. If we do a deeper dive into the numbers, I’m sure we will find that a vast majority of those drop-outs come from historically disadvantaged homes. They are kids from black, Hispanic, and low-income families who most benefit from a high school diploma, but are least likely to earn one.
Readers of the LA Times should be horrified that a quarter of students are dropping out long after they are pleased with a 5.3 percent reduction in the number of drop outs. The true test will be next year and the year after that, once those phantom registrations are off the books. Does the drop-out rate continue to fall, or does it remain steady, cemented in the notion that our urban high schools are regularly failing anywhere from a quarter to a half of all students?
Good data collection is a first step. The LA Times notes that the drop-out rate is calculated based on four years of data, but does not track individuals. It also doesn’t track those students who leave one LAUSD high school for another school. Why not? How can a state or school district effectively track graduation rates if the data is not linked to individual students? In an era where most realize we can manipulate data points to say just about anything, But grad rates that are “estimations” and guesstimates shouldn’t be allowed in today’s era of data quality and data systems, particularly in a district like Los Angeles where money is scarce, the stakes are high, and principal (and superintendent) jobs are on the line based on student performance measures … including graduation numbers.
Calculating a graduation rate should be an easy thing. Back in 2005, all 50 states, including California signed onto the National Governors Association’s common graduation rate formula. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education passed Christmas Eve regs requiring states to adhere to that formula. Yet we only see a fraction of those 50 states put the formula into practice. And many of those states — including Michigan and North Carolina — had to deal with a perceived “increase” in drop outs because they were calculating the graduation rate effectively for the first time.
It is relatively easy math. Take your number of ninth graders, subtracting those students who transferred out or otherwise may have left the school district. Then look at the number of kids who graduate four years later. Divide the latter by the former, and you have the graduation rate. Subtract that rate from 100, and you have the drop-out rate. It doesn’t take high school calculus to determine the percentage of graduates — and drop outs — in a given state or a given school district.
In its pursuit of Race to the Top dollars, California officials (including the Governator) are claiming that they can effectively track student achievement data with individual teacher records. School districts like Long Beach claim they are already doing so. But how can we expect a state like California to effectively use individual student data to incentivize individual educators when it still struggles to accurately calculate graduation rates in districts like Los Angeles? If LAUSD is still “estimating” grad rates, do we really expect them to manage a RttT grant that financially rewards teachers for the achievement of their students? It seems like we need to learn how to walk before we can run this latest race.