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NCLB Outrages

Flawed high school graduation rates force educators to rethink ways to keep students

Ohanian Comment: If NCLB forces schools to be honest about their push-out rates then this must be counted as a good thing.

Jesus Reyes hit a low point four years ago. He left Watsonville High School without a diploma and was working in the fields picking strawberries for minimal pay.

"I felt like all there was for me was work and that I would be in the fields for the rest of my life," said Reyes, 22. "I thought thatís just how it is. It was a horrible feeling."

But with one phone call, Reyesís life started turning around. When he left high school, he was 70 credits short of the 220 needed to graduate. Then Rosa Coronado-Roderick called from the Out of School Youth program at Pajaro Valley Unified School District.

She convinced him to enter the new program that reaches out to find migrant workers and help them continue their education.

Reyes completed high school and is now a student at Cabrillo College seeking a degree in education or counseling. He also works full time for Out of School Youth as a youth advocate, trying to convince other people like himself that education should not be treated as a mere option.

"He had it in him, as do thousands of other people out there who did not make it all the way (through high school)," Coronado-Roderick said. "These students effectively no longer exist, but we know thatís not true. Thatís what weíre aiming to stop."

Thousands of California students like Reyes leave high school each year, but are sometimes used, typically inadvertently, to inflate graduation rates, according to a study by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Project researchers said there is a massive misreporting of data in California and that very little is being done to stop it. They concluded that "high-stakes testing," such as the various standardized tests students take each year, compound the problem.

"California is doing a miserable job of addressing its graduation rate crisis," said Daniel Losen, project researcher. "The ultimate measure of school accountability is its ability to graduate its students."

ĎDropout factoriesí
The study calls California schools "dropout factories," and that dropout estimates for minority students are worst of all: Only 50 percent of black ninth-grade boys received a diploma four years after starting and that only 7 percent of Latinos attend schools that graduate 90 percent of students.

The issue hits home locally, as all of the countyís major public high schools have lower 2003 graduation rates than reported by the state, according to the study.

Using the National Center for Education Statistics formula, which the state applies, Californiaís 2003 graduation rate was 87 percent, compared to the 71 percent calculated in the Harvard study.

According to the study, the state is harming students and the public by failing to keep students in school and report accurate numbers. State officials acknowledge Californiaís system for calculating graduation rates is inaccurate, but say itís the only option currently available.

"The solution is high school reform," said Jack OíConnell, Californiaís superintendent of public instruction. "Programs like music, art and athletics are the only link to school that some kids have. Thatís how you keep them interested in the classroom."

A third graduation rate of 69 percent, as determined by the state a couple years ago, is probably more accurate, OíConnell said

California Department of Education officials insist the state was told to adopt the centerís method by the federal government to help comply with federal law.

The federal No Child Left Behind education law requires high schools to make increases over the previous yearís graduation rate. Just as with test scores, failure to meet the goals could mean sanctions that put schools in danger of losing local control.

An old problem
In 2003, Watsonville High School had a graduation rate of 91 percent, according to the California Department of Education.

When calculated using solely enrollment data from 1999 to 2003, the rate drops to 53 percent.

"States across the country calculate rates this way and itís something weíve always known was wrong," said Mary Anne Mays, Pajaro Valley superintendent. "When you have a freshmen class of 900 and you graduate 400, thatís not a 90 percent graduation rate. But to us, this is not new news. Itís something weíve been trying understand for a long time."

Harbor, Santa Cruz and Soquel high schools reported graduating 98 percent, 98 percent and 97 percent of its students, respectively, in 2003. Those numbers fell to 76, 82 and 75 percent using the Harvard studyís method.

Santa Cruz superintendent Alan Pagano agrees with state officials that current methodology is not the most reliable. He said Santa Cruz schools face different issues than Pajaro Valley.

"We do not have some of the transient family issues that Pajaro Valley has, but my main concern is a reduction in enrollment over time than a significant reduction in graduation rates," Pagano said.

Exorbitant housing prices are forcing young families out of the Santa Cruz City Schools district, Pagano said. To combat the burgeoning problem, Pagano said the schools need work with the city and contractors to build affordable housing.

"If families can afford to live here, then they wonít move and take their children out of our schools," Pagano said. "That will in turn help the graduation rate because more students will remain."

Pajaro Valley schools face issues with migrant workers that other districts in Santa Cruz County deal with only slightly, if at all. Many families leave to find work, but Mays does not like "placing the blame on one segment of the population."

"Saying itís simply because of migrant families would excuse the fact that we have a low graduation rate," Mays said. " The reason is that we have not been able to deal with children from poverty, who often come from (minority) families, and make them successful in school."

Mays said the most accurate way to determine graduation rates is to see how many eighth-graders moved on to ninth grade and then how many of them "graduated from anywhere."

That might be possible in the near future.

Tracking students
All sides, including Harvard,tend to agree that the most effective way to combat inaccurate graduation numbers is to assign an identification number to each student in the state.

With the number, students can be tracked even if they often switch schools or districts.

While the study criticizes California for not investing in the program, the state actually has spent almost $70 million since 1998 to create a student identification system for public schools, according to the Department of Finance.

About 270 of the stateís 1,000 school districts have piloted the tracking program, and every student in the state should have a number by this summer, said Deputy Director of Finance H.D. Palmer. None of the 270 are in Santa Cruz County.

"The only thing is that itís going to take five years for the program to result in graduation and dropout numbers that show us something we can use," Palmer said. "Itís not going to mean anything until we see the results from a whole graduating class from beginning to end."

The San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute agrees. In its study of state graduation and drop-out rates, researchers there determined that people who earn their General Educational Development (GED) certificate should be counted as drop-outs. They are currently included as graduates.

Reaching out
In the meantime, districts must do what they can to reach out to students who are "flying under the radar," said Faris Sabbah, director of Pajaro Valleyís migrant education program

As dropout rates rise, so do crime and poverty, the Harvard researchers said.

Even relying on Californiaís most conservative estimate of 66,657 dropouts from grades seven to 12 in the 2002-03 school year, the state will lose $14 billion in workers wages and have to spend $73 million to support an additional 1,225 inmates, said researcher Russell Rumberger, a UC Santa Barbara professor.

While students in migrant families are at risk of dropping out, Sabbah said the district has noticed "the biggest drop between ninth and 10th grades."

"I think what the Civil Rights Project is saying is that the most accurate method is to treat those who arenít here as dropouts," Sabbah said. "We help about 300 students at this time. Thatís only a fraction of those out there, but the hope is to continue growing."

The Pajaro Valley district is part of Federal Migrant Education Region 11, which receives about $4 million annually from the U.S. Department of Educationís Office of Migrant Education.

The money funds academic and medical programs. The region adds 30 bilingual teachers and 17 aides for Pajaro Valleyís 8,000 migrant students. The district has about 19,000 students.

With a district population thatís almost 50 percent migrant, Reyes said his goal is to visit as many homes as possible to bring them back to school.

Reyes made one of those visits Thursday. Leonel Cervantes was 20 credits short of graduating one time two years ago and recently asked Reyes to stop by his modest family home on Green Valley Road in Watsonville.

Sitting on a couch, Reyes made his pitch.

Like any good salesman, Reyes kept up a gentle pressure on his client. He told Cervantes in a torrent of Spanish that he can complete the required classes in couple months this summer, all the while pointing to classes that Cervantes might like to take a Cabrillo, such as landscape design.

He never let doubt creep into the conversation.

By the end of 20 minutes, Cervantes was feeling good about his options and Reyes left with high hopes.

"My family is very happy with me, especially my mom, and I want other people to feel this way," Reyes said. "Itís like a different life."

Contact Jeff Tobin at jtobin@santacruzsentinel.com.

How graduation rates are determined
The National Center for Education Statistics determines graduation rates by using drop-out estimates between each high school academic year. The numbers are provided by the states.
Harvard University researchers with the Civil Rights Project rebuke that process in favor of using enrollment data from each school.

They gathered enrollment numbers for each high school year starting with freshmen in the 1999-2000 school year and ending with seniors in 2002-2003. The percentage was calculated by dividing the number of graduates by the number of original freshmen.

While educators are apprehensive to accept either at face value, state and local officials all agree that the centerís rates are inflated.

Graduation rates can mean trouble under federal law

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires annual testing in most grade levels, but also calls for schools to report their high school graduation rates annually.

Under the law, schools must raise their test scores and graduation rates or face possible sanctions, that can include a state takeover of a school.

In California, high schools can meet their graduation targets each year by showing any increase over the preceding year.

Researchers for the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University accuse the state of failing to demand more from its high schools. The group released a report this year saying California drastically overstates its graduation rates.

"The high number of dropouts is a basic civil rights issue," said Gary Orfield, Civil Rights Project director. "If students donít make it through high school, they really have no chance in this economy."

State education officials said they did not want to place demands on campuses based on data they believe is unreliable.

The state uses a federal formula based on drop-out estimates, opposed to the Harvard method of comparing enrollment data throughout a four-year period.

Education officials have long said they do not trust the federal method for reporting graduation rates. In fact, the formula creates a graduation rate that will be used for No Child Left Behind purposes only, according to the state Department of Education.

"We believe that the statewide rate of 69.6 percent is close to the actual graduation rate," said Jack OíConnell, state superintendent of public instruction, "but we will be unable to create accurate school- and district- level graduation or drop-out rates until individual students can be tracked over time."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Jeff Tobin
Santa Cruz Sentinel


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