Just 44% of Los Angeles Unified students receive a high school diploma
Just 44 percent of Los Angeles Unified students receive a high school diploma, making the 727,000-student district's graduation rate among the lowest of large urban school districts, a national study released Tuesday found.
Published by the nonpartisan publication Education Week with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the study adds more evidence to support claims that the district's graduation rate is at or below 50 percent.
District officials have repeatedly questioned the studies and say the graduation rate is closer to 64 percent.
The Education Week study found that the LAUSD's graduation rate was even lower than the 48 percent estimated by Harvard University in a controversial report that has been seized upon by those who want to break the district into smaller pieces.
The LAUSD was sixth from the bottom in graduation rates out of the nation's 50 largest school districts, trailed only by Detroit, Baltimore, New York City, Milwaukee and Cleveland. The study, which looked at U.S. Department of Education graduation rates for the 2002-03 school year, found California's graduation rate to be about 71 percent, slightly better than the nationwide average.
LAUSD officials say studies do not accurately reflect the district's graduation rate.
"You see discrepancies between figures because it's very hard to document dropouts, and they tend to be undercounted and underreported," said Lynn Olson, executive project editor for Diplomas Count.
"There are missing pieces of data and none of these data systems are perfect at this point. The point is, if you look at a lot of these figures, whether a 40 percent graduation rate or 60 percent, that should be troubling, particularly when you start breaking out for various racial minorities."
Superintendent Roy Romer said he was frustrated with the studies because they don't show the district's gains, don't take into account students who move during the year and exclude ninth-graders who are held back because they don't have enough units to move up.
The LAUSD reported a dropout rate of 33 percent to the state and officials maintain that new reports will show the figure has dropped to 24 percent - a nine percentage point drop in one year.
"I'm frustrated because they're not an accurate report of where we are. We've made real changes since 2003. There's a statistical flaw in the way they measure," Romer said. "What we need to do is use the accurate figures of the state of California.
"Those are identifiable and verifiable. We obviously inherited the largest dropout problem in California and we're radically changing that."
Political leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have seized on the figures to push agendas for reform ranging from mayoral takeover of the district to its breakup.
Villaraigosa, who was in Sacramento on Tuesday lobbying for his foundering school-takeover plan, said the Education Week study further bolsters his effort by demonstrating the district is failing to help kids graduate.
"(This is) the fourth study now to confirm what I've been saying for a year: that the dropout rate is somewhere around 50 percent in L.A. Unified," Villaraigosa said. "We've got a problem."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who met with the mayor Tuesday, cited the LAUSD's high dropout rate as one of the reasons he supports Villaraigosa's plan.
"We have a 50 percent dropout rate amongst our students," Schwarzenegger said. "The grades are bad. I don't think they're really creating there the future for California. So I think it is really terrific that he's working on that and he has my support."
Researchers said the results were not surprising for a large urban district with high poverty, a large number of minority students and where a quarter of the students are English learners.
"While LAUSD will have some challenges, they're really addressing this issue head-on, and I understand the mayor is very active in this as well," said Christopher B. Swanson, director of Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, who oversaw the development of the report.
LAUSD officials don't argue that the dropout rates are too high - even at 24 percent - and in a bid to boost graduation rates, the district is spending more than $20 million to develop the Diploma Project, which would lower class size, assign counselors to at-risk schools to follow up on students not coming to school, and create a more personalized middle and high school experience, district officials said.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said Tuesday that the report reflected what they've known all along - that the state's dropout rate is too high, especially among Latino and African-American students.
Calling the process of calculating graduation rates an "imprecise science," he said the state will be able to track the rates more accurately once they implement their statewide student identifier system by 2009.
Dropout rates can vary dramatically depending on how a district records a transfer student versus a dropout, as well as how it defines a dropout.
California, for example, doesn't count students in prison as dropouts, but those working toward their GED diplomas are.
The study comes at the heels of another study released in April finding that barely half of LAUSD students receive their high school diplomas, mirroring the Harvard University study from a year ago that alarmed city officials and fueled debate over the district's effectiveness.
In the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research study, also funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the LAUSD ranked 86th out of the nation's 100 largest school districts in its graduation rate - lower than districts in Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas, which are historically under-performing states.
The results were even bleaker for the district's minority students.
Blacks had a 55 percent graduation rate and Latinos 44 percent, compared with 77 percent among whites and 80 percent among Asians. Latinos account for the overwhelming majority of LAUSD students.
Still more evidence official high school dropout rate is sham
Study Slams LAUSD Grad Rates