Statement by The Education Trust—West on High School Drop-Out and Graduation Rates


OAKLAND, CA (May 12, 2009) Today, the California Department of Education (CDE) released information on high school graduation and drop-out rates. The CDE reported a four-year graduation rate of 68 percent for the class of 2008. Continuing its use of the Statewide Student Identifier (SSID) system introduced last year, the state was able to reveal a more accurate accounting of the number of students who dropped out of California’s public schools. Of the students who started as freshman in 2004, 20 percent dropped-out of high school.

“We are counting and acknowledging students who in previous years had gone uncounted and unacknowledged – disappeared from a system that had already failed them,” said Linda Murray, Acting Executive Director of The Education Trust—West. “These numbers make one thing clear: Doing what we’ve always done in California’s schools simply isn’t good enough.”

In the 2007-2008 school year, 106,073 of our high school students dropped-out. But the drop-out rate is much higher for some students. Statewide, Latino students represent 45% of high school students, but 57% percent of drop-outs. African-American students represent 8% of high school students, but 15% of drop-outs. In sharp contrast, White students represent 31% of high school students, but 19% of drop-outs. (See Figure 1)

Figure 1

“The drop-out rate overall is shameful,” said Murray. “But more shameful still is the large number of students of color who have dropped-out because our public school system has failed to make good on the promise of a high-quality education.”

State leaders are coming much closer to telling the truth about high schools in California. As we continue to collect and report more accurate information, state and district leaders must get about the business of improving the way we do school in California. A key step toward reform is raising expectations for all students, and ratcheting up the level of rigorous instruction offered in our high schools. Some districts have taken it upon themselves to provide their students with what they know they need for success in the 21st century economy by aligning high school graduation requirements with the UC/CSU A-G course sequence.

Yet many have suggested that raising the bar will also raise drop-out rates.  The state’s reporting of drop-out data for San Jose Unified School District (SJUSD) turns that myth on its head.

In SJUSD, where students are required to complete the A-G course sequence to earn a diploma, the drop-out rate for the class of 2008 is lower than their peers across the state. While statewide 20 percent of students from the class of 2008 dropped-out, 11 percent of SJUSD students did so. Statewide, 26 percent of Latino students and 35 percent of African-American students dropped-out, compared to 16 percent and 17 percent in SJUSD.

“Students don’t drop out because they can’t handle Algebra II,” said Murray. “They drop-out because they’re bored. All too often, students repeat the same low-level math class, year after year, with no effective support or intervention. They absorb the low expectations that adults set for them and then lower themselves to meet them.”

Rigor alone is not a panacea—early warning systems, effective interventions, and adequate and thoughtful use of fiscal resources are critical—but increasing expectations remains a necessary first step toward improving student outcomes.

“In the end, it’s really about whether adults believe California students are really up for the challenge. We believe they are. When you expect more from students and the adults who serve them, they will deliver more,” concluded Murray.

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Karla Fernandez

Communications Manager

Karla Fernandez (she/her/hers) joins Ed Trust–West as a Communications Manager with over 11 years of experience advancing social impact initiatives.

Karla started her career as a teacher at Chicago Public Schools and UIC College Prep. After teaching, Karla joined United Friends of the Children to support LA County’s youth in foster care as a college counselor. Through Leadership for Educational Equity, Karla also served as a Policy Advisor Fellow for the office of a Los Angeles Unified School Board Member. She solidified her interests in policy analysis and quantitative research during her time with the Price Center for Social Innovation, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, and the USC Presidential Working Group on Sustainability. Before joining The Education Trust–West, Karla was the Associate Director for the Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative, a network of nonprofits advocating for communities in SELA.

Karla holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology from the University of Chicago, a Master of Public Policy from the USC Price School of Public Policy, and a Graduate Certificate in Policy Advocacy from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Karla is based out of southern California and is passionate about using data analysis, communications, and digital strategies for policy advocacy and social justice efforts.