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Dropouts down, graduates up, state reports

Students celebrate during graduation ceremonies at North Hollywood High School.

State officials Wednesday reported modest improvements in dropout and graduation rates and said they were especially heartened with gains made by such groups as Latino and African American students.

Overall, the state dropout rate declined by 2.2 percentage points to 14.4% for the class of 2011, when compared to the class of 2010.  Data is not yet available for the class of 2012. For Latinos, the improvement was 3.1 percentage points; for blacks, it was 2.1%.

The results were called “generally good news,” by state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a conference call. “We are graduating more students. The dropout rate is down.” Every additional student graduating is a “success story,” he added.

This year’s release marks the second annual report under a new system that tracks individual students from the time they begin ninth grade. Comparisons going back beyond the class of 2010 aren’t possible under the current formula.

In Los Angeles Unified, the dropout rate improved 4.2 percentage points, lowering from 24.8% to 20.6%. Belmont High, west of downtown, recorded a large change, lowering its dropout rate from 45.6% to 26.6%.

Manual Arts High, south of downtown, bucked the trend in the wrong direction, with a dropout rate increasing by 1 percentage point to 26.3%. But Manual Arts nonetheless also increased its graduation rate, by 1.2%, to 65.6%. Those figures aren’t contradictions — because many students are neither graduates nor dropouts. This other category includes students who are behind schedule but still in school as well as disabled students who earn completion certificates rather than diplomas.

L.A. Unified had less welcome news with its graduation rate, which went down from 62.4% to 61.6%, according to state data.

The state graduation rate was 76.3%, up 1.5 percentage points from 2010, with larger gains among Latinos and blacks as well as among students from low-income families.

An advocacy group offered a less-upbeat assessment of the new data.

“Even though these rates are improving, at the rate California is going, it will take us 13 years to close the graduation gap between Latino and African American students and their white peers,” said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Oakland-based Education Trust-West. "It’s time we stopped talking about this problem and invested in the strategies that top districts and schools are using to fix it.” 

The group singled out ABC Unified, in southeast L.A. County, as a school system to emulate in this regard.

Torlakson credited the better numbers to an increasing focus among educators statewide on keeping students in school. The upward trend occurred, he noted, amid budget cuts that resulted in larger class sizes, shorter school years and reduced support through such programs as summer school.

Not counted in these rates are students who drop out before ninth grade. Statewide, more than 7,600 students from the class of 2011 dropped out in seventh or eighth grade.

Dropout tabulations have become more accurate because they now track individual students and can pick them up wherever and whenever they enroll in a California public school. But school districts remain on the honor system when reporting what happens to students who leave the state or country or who opt for private school. Schools are supposed to document what happens to their students, but they are not likely to be audited. In addition, comprehensive high schools have the potential to improve their dropout rate by shifting high-risk students to alternative programs.

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Students celebrate during graduation ceremonies at North Hollywood High School. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

 
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