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NCLB Outrages

Under NCLB, State Tinkers with Dropouts

Ohanian Comment: I believe that every time the word dropout occurs it should be labelled as the author's own peculiarity, indicating that it is not the accurate term, which would be pushout. Language is important.

I think 376 years is an optimistic figure.

California has a federally approved plan to solve the state's high school dropout [sic] problem. The bad news is it will take 375 years.

The state submitted its plan in response to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation enacted in 2002. NCLB requires states to demonstrate that all schools and districts are making "adequate yearly progress" toward the goal of all students reaching proficiency in state-designated reading and math tests within 12 years. In addition, the legislation requires that states establish a high school graduation rate goal and demonstrate that all schools and districts either reach the goal or make progress toward it. California originally set a goal of 100 percent, but has since revised it to a less lofty 82.8 percent.

Arden Fair Mall
Unfortunately, the federal government doesn't require states to use a realistic measure of high school graduation rates. California's method inflates that rate. By counting only the official dropouts and graduates, it ignores tens of thousands of students who start school in the ninth grade but who disappear from the rolls at some point between ninth and 12th grade. Thus, the dropout figures are notoriously inaccurate. The vast numbers of missing students left out of the formula led to an official statewide graduation rate of 87 percent in 2002.

The report released in March by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard used a formula based instead on actual enrollment numbers, comparing the number of graduates from grade 12 with the number of students enrolled in each of the previous four grades. When California's graduates for 2002 were calculated using this method, the state's overall graduation rate was 71 percent. Breaking down that figure, the data show that white students graduated at a rate of 78 percent. Minority graduation rates were much lower in the state: 57 percent for African Americans, 60 percent for Latinos and 52 percent for Native Americans.

NCLB also lets states set their own criteria for measuring progress. So California and several other states decided that schools and districts make adequate yearly progress if they improve their graduation rate by a mere one-tenth of 1 percent per year. According to the Civil Rights Project's estimates for the 10 largest districts in California, Los Angeles Unified School District has the lowest graduation rate in the state - 45.3 percent. So if LAUSD improves its graduation rate by 0.1 percent per year, it will take 375 years to get to the state-approved graduation rate.

NCLB requires states to show progress in achievement for up to seven identifiable subgroups - including poor, minority, English learner and disabled students. But the U.S. secretary of education has decided states do not need to show progress in graduation rates for these subgroups. This provides a perverse incentive: One way to raise both the aggregate test scores and the test scores of these subgroups is to get the most low-achieving students to leave the school or the district, either by dropping out or transferring to a program that issues a high school equivalency diploma. Although such students would lower the NCLB graduation rate, the school or district could still make adequate yearly progress as long as it showed a 0.1 percent improvement in its aggregate graduation rate. So by discharging the most difficult at-risk students and working with the best of the rest, both test scores and graduation rates could improve. This practice already has been reported in New York City and in Houston, and has been documented in the research literature.

Even if such practices don't show up in California, the lack of a timely plan to reduce the state's dropout figures is shameful, and costly in the long run. The census estimates that over their working lives, dropouts earn $270,000 less than students who graduate and don't go to college. That means the 66,567 students who the state admits dropped out of California public schools in a single year (2002-03) will cost the state $14 billion in lost wages. If the actual number of dropouts is much higher than the official state figures, then the cost is even greater. Dropouts also cost the state in other ways through higher crime rates, increased welfare and more dependence on public health care. Last year's dropouts likely will result in 1,225 more state inmates who will cost taxpayers $73 million to incarcerate.

California's long-term welfare depends critically on its willingness and ability to fully educate the state's growing and diverse student population. Its dropout plan falls far short of this goal.

About the writers:

* Russell W. Rumberger is a professor of education and director of the UC Linguistic Minority Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He can be reached at russ@education.ucsb.edu. Daniel J. Losen is a senior education law and policy associate at the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. He can be reached at dlosen@law.harvard.edu. Both were contributing editors to the report "Dropouts in California: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis," issued in March by the Civil Rights Project.

— Russell W. Rumberger & Daniel J. Losen
Sacramento Bee


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