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California dropout report better
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A combination of computerized tracking and public pressure have joined to make reporting of school dropouts in California the best in America, but those reports are still not good enough.

For sure, we now have a more accurate idea of how many students drop out of school before they finish the 12th grade – in some cases long before they get anywhere near that level.

But some school-age children remain among the missing.

One thing making the annual dropout report from the state’s Department of Education far more accurate than before is a three-year-old system under which each student gets a number upon enrollment in a public school, and keeps that number wherever in California he or she goes until graduation.

That’s the big reason the official dropout rate is now listed as 23.7 percent, still shamefully high as it means almost one of every four students starting high school in any year will not graduate. Today’s figure (for the 2010-11 school year; 2011-12 numbers won’t be published until next spring) is far below the estimates of a few years back, which usually approximated a 30 percent to 33 percent dropout rate. But it leaves out kids listed by school districts as having moved to other states; there’s no way to tell whether they really moved or whether they moved and then dropped out.

The computerized student ID numbers now allow tracking of students as they move around the state – and about one in every seven Californians moves each year, according to some demographic reports. Before tracking, students could “disappear” and be counted as dropouts when they moved and changed schools. That doesn’t happen anymore.

But some students still don’t show up. These are the pupils of the little-publicized school systems run by every one of California’s 58 counties, mostly for problem children and teens. There are schools in juvenile halls and youth camps, where the guards make it hard to drop out. But it’s easy and common for students to leave alternative or continuation schools, often peopled by students expelled from local schools for behavioral problems or other troubles, including pregnancy.

Some credible estimates put the number disappearing from those schools as high as 85 percent. Because each such student also has a tracking number, they are included in the overall statewide dropout rate, but not in figures for the local school districts from which they came.

This encourages local school districts to expel students who fit the profile of likely dropouts on the flimsiest of grounds, thus improving the numbers those districts can report to their local citizens and parent bodies.

That’s the contention of the activist group California Parents for Educational Choice, which has agitated for accuracy in dropout reporting longer and more effectively than any other group.

 “Fewer than a quarter of Californians even know what a county school is,” wrote Alan Bonsteel, a physician and CPEC’s president. “These schools are the state’s biggest dropout factories, percentage-wise.”

In reality, though, the conditions leading to those county school dropouts developed while the students were attending regular schools. But, as Bonsteel notes, the fact they are counted against county schools essentially whitewashes the districts from which they came, allowing dropout numbers for those districts to look better than they really are. So it’s best to remain at least a little skeptical when any local district touts its performance as well above state averages.

Still, the improvements in dropout reporting over the last few years are enormous. One example is middle school dropouts, which are now included in the state report, but never were before.

About 8,000 of these pre-teens and early-teens dropped out in 2010-11, according to the state report, or about one-half of one percent of all public school students. They represent about 2 percent of all dropouts. (Find the state’s press release on dropout here, containing links to the complete report:

Those official numbers are probably still lower than they are in real life, but at least state education officials are at long last recognizing there is a dropout problem even before kids get to high school. After years of simply ignoring the phenomenon, that’s progress.

All of which means that while California’s dropout reporting system and the numbers it produces are far from perfect, it is at least far more honest and complete than it often has been. That’s progress, even though more improvement is still needed.

Why is all this so important? Because without accurate numbers on dropouts, no one can push school districts to ramp up efforts to keep kids in school, the surest way to lower crime and increase quality of life over the long term.