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State Flunks on Dropout Rate

It’s not the sort of news about which state officials were likely to send out a press release — and they didn’t. But starting this fall, the state will change the way it counts dropouts. The new policy comes preciously close to an admission that California’s old methods produced a preposterous, even fraudulent, undercounting of dropouts. “Increasingly we’re very aware that our dropout data is not very reliable, because it is really not what it pretends to be,” state Deputy Superintendent Susie Lange told the Weekly.

That’s putting it mildly. Last year, a Weekly investigation demonstrated that the state gave school districts up to a year and a half to locate missing students, and then permitted any number of loopholes to avoid calling them dropouts. Some schools, for example, wiped out dropout tallies by transferring students to adult school. Even if these transferred students never earned degrees, they weren’t counted as dropouts — even when they entered programs for which only dropouts were eligible. The result is that schools and school districts have been taking credit for brilliantly low dropout rates, but they never seemed to have that many graduates either.

This fall, school districts must follow the federal formula for counting dropouts, which can be simplified to: If you didn’t get a degree and you don’t show up for school in the fall, you’re a dropout.

This system has its own imperfections, and it too can be manipulated. But it does not, for example, allow the adult-school transfer trick. Expect the dropout rate at some schools to rise precipitously — unless, of course, schools can find another way to cheat.