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Study: More than one-third of LAUSD students drop out

Los Angeles Daily News - July 16, 2008

By George B. Sánchez 

VAN NUYS - More than one-third of Los Angeles Unified high school students drop out, according to a new study released Wednesday that is expected to end a long controversy over the accuracy of state dropout rates. 

The district's four-year dropout rate of 33.6 percent was well above the statewide average of 24.2 percent, sparking renewed calls to beef up academic standards in the nation's second-largest school district. 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said the new numbers indicate the state's schools are facing a crisis. 

"The dropout rate of 24 percent is too high. It's unacceptable and must be addressed," he said.

He also said the numbers highlight the achievement gap facing nonwhite students, who had significantly higher dropout rates. 

The statewide dropout rate for white students was 15.2 percent. For African-Americans, it was 41.6 percent; for Latinos, 30.3 percent; and for Asians, 10.2 percent. 

The new study is expected to become the benchmark for determining dropout rates to end the confusion over widely varying figures reported in the past. 

The LAUSD rate previously had been estimated at anywhere between 24 percent and 50 percent, a range blamed on inadequate methods of tracking the statistic. 

The conflicting numbers had been a key point of contention in the battle by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take over partial control of the district. 

But with this new study, the state has improved its monitoring of dropout rates by tracking individual students as they move from district to district. 

LAUSD officials and education experts agreed with the state's findings and said the results should lead toward addressing the causes of low academic achievement. 

School officials warned against comparing the new rate with previous dropout assessments, and admitted to not having a firm grasp of the problem in the past. 

"I'm not sure we ever really knew what our dropout rate was," said LAUSD Senior Deputy Superintendent Ray Cortines. 

Cortines said he had expected the rate might be higher. 

He added that he was surprised the dropout rate among Latino students in the LAUSD was as high as 35 percent. 

More than 40 percent of the district's African-American students dropped out, twice the rate of white students, according to the report. 

An estimated 13.4 percent of Asian students dropped out over four years. 

Villaraigosa used the dropout figures to tout his proposal to improve Los Angeles schools. 

"Whether it's one in two or one in three students, our schools' dropout rate is simply unacceptable," Villaraigosa said in a written statement. "This is why my Partnership for L.A. Schools is pushing for fundamental reform of the district that gives teachers and parents real voice and power in the classroom." 

In the past, dropout numbers were submitted from school districts to the state. When students transferred out of a district, there was no follow-up to make sure the student arrived in school in the new district. Last year's estimate placed the statewide dropout rate at 13 percent. This year, the state tracked students through Statewide Student Identifiers numbers, or SSIDs, to provide more accurate data on graduation rates. 

Russell Rumberger, director of the California Dropout Research Project, said education experts expected a higher rate of dropouts with the state's new tracking system. 

"It's bigger than we thought,” he said. 

Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the state tracking system should put aside debates about the accuracy and methodology of previous dropout assessments. 

However, the tracking system will require trained school employees who know how to use the system, which uses 28 "withdrawal codes" that indicate the reason for a student leaving a school. 

"The system depends on 10,000 schools in California reporting accurately," said Keric Ashley, director of data management for the California Department of Education. 

O'Connell said he has asked for funding for training. 

"You can build a beautiful system, but if you don't have a pilot trained to fly the plane, it's not a good idea," Ashley said. 

Along with dropout comparisons between ethnic groups, Esther Wong, LAUSD assistant superintendent for planning and assessment, said the report also highlighted higher dropout rates in the transition between ninth and 10th grades. 

Debra Duardo, the LAUSD's director of dropout prevention and recovery, said the tracking system should allow school officials to plan and create individual solutions, echoing a proposal from Superintendent David Brewer III, who said the results call for smaller class sizes unique to students and their backgrounds.

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