Two hundred seventy-two thousand Los Angeles County students were truant during the 2008-2009 school year. Let that sink in. Two hundred seventy-two thousand kids. That is 16 percent of all the students attending schools in the heart of Southern California, or 1,509 students skipping school without an excuse every school day.
We know where many of these kids will end up: They will become high school dropouts. What is astounding is that thanks to California education officials and the state legislature, we even know the truancy rate at all. Most states are ignoring the importance of reporting credible, honest truancy numbers, leaving unaddressed a critical symptom of the nation’s dropout crisis.
Within the past five years, researchers such as Robert Balfanz have proven that truancy is one of the foremost symptoms of America’s educational crisis and a primary indicator of whether a student will drop out or graduate from school. As Balfanz, Lisa Herzog and Douglas Mac Iver pointed out in a 2007 study, a sixth-grader missing a fifth of the school year has just a 13 percent chance of graduating six years later. In elementary school, truancy is a sign of parenting issues. In later grades, truancy is an indicator that a child has given up on learning after years of poor teaching, lousy curricula and lack of engagement (and caring) by teachers and principals.
Yet, as with graduation rates a decade ago, states and school districts do an abysmal job of tracking truancy (and school attendance overall) and offers misleading statistics on the true size of the problem. California offers a decent start on how to solve the latter. But it will require better data standards and data systems to make real progress.
The problem starts with the statistics itself. Most states calculate attendance by dividing the total number of days missed by students by the total number of days they are supposed to attend (usually 180 days multiplied by enrollment). This metric, used largely for school funding, is great for district coffers. But it’s terrible for addressing truancy. Why? It hides the levels of truancy plaguing a school because it includes all unexcused absences, not just the set number of days under which a student is considered by law to be truant. Add in the fact that tardiness (or excess lateness by a student) is added into the attendance rate and one doesn’t get the full sense of a truancy problem. After all, one reacts differently to a 93 percent attendance rate (which makes it seem as if most kids are attending school) than a rate that shows that 16 percent of students are truant (which is more-accurate and distressing).
What principals, teachers, district officials and parents need is the percentage of students reaching the state definition of truancy (in many states, 10 or more days of unexcused absences) — in order to identify clusters of truancy — and the chronic truants themselves (so they can be targeted for additional help). A group of teachers at New York City’s High School for Telecommunications – frustrated with the district’s poor attendance tracking — are among those developing technologies to improve how attendance is calculated. The technological solutions, however, are meaningless without developing actual calculations that plainly break down what is happening and making the data public for all to see.
California is one of two states (out of 10) surveyed by Dropout Nation that have gone this far in providing truancy data. (Indiana, the epicenter for a 2007 editorial series Dropout Nation’s editor wrote on truancy for The Indianapolis Star, is the other). Unlike other states, the state Department of Education publishes something called an actual Truancy rate, which shows the percentage of students missing three or more days of school unexcused. Even better, its data system actually shows the number of truant students in any given county, district or school. For a researcher or truancy prevention advocate, this is a much-better first step in determining the extent of truancy than the traditional attendance rates reported by other states.
What one learns, particularly about truancy in districts in Los Angeles County, is distressing. Fifty-seven of L.A. County’s 88 school districts (including the county department of education) had truancy rates of greater than 10 percent. Within the county’s largest district, Los Angeles Unified, 77 of its 658 schools were plagued with truancy rates greater than 10 percent. While high schools were plagued with double-digit truancy rates, so were middle schools such as Charles Drew in the city’s Florence-Graham neighborhood; there, 54 percent of the student population were chronically truant. The truancy rate for L.A. Unified overall was 5.4 percent; but the number leaves out truancy levels at the elementary school level (where as many as one in ten kindergarten and first grade students miss a month of school). (A a full list is on L.A. County is available here.)
|A PORTRAIT OF TRUANCY: SAN GABRIEL UNIFIED|
|School||Enrollment*||Number of Students with UnexcusedAbsence or Tardy on 3 or More Days (truants)||Truancy Rate|
|Del Mar High||69||102||147.83%|
|San Gabriel Unified District||5,439||3,340||61.41%|
For all of its dysfunction, L.A. Unified doesn’t have the highest truancy rate in the county. That distinction belongs to the nearby San Gabriel Unified School District, where 61 percent of students were chronically truant. The level of unexplained absences starts early; 51 percent of students at Coolidge Elementary School were truant, while at Gabriellino High, the truancy rate was 86 percent. Another high-truancy district is Lynwood Unified, whose truancy rate of 56 percent was just below that of San Gabriel. Almost every one of the 3,152 students at Lynwood High School had missed three or more days of school without any explanation, while 81 percent of students at Cesar Chavez Middle School were truant.
A PROFILE OF TRUANCY: LYNWOOD UNIFIED
|School||Enrollment*||Number of Students with Unexcused Absence or Tardy on 3 or More Days (truants)||Truancy Rate|
|Cesar Chavez Middle||976||791||81.05%|
|Helen Keller Elementary||621||249||40.1%|
|Janie P. Abbott Elementary||676||247||36.54%|
|Marco Antonio Firebaugh High||1,875||863||46.03%|
|Mark Twain Elementary||616||197||31.98%|
|Pathway Independent Study||84||10||11.9%|
|Rosa Parks Elementary||626||99||15.81%|
|Thurgood Marshall Elementary||673||260||38.63%|
|Vista High (Continuation)||314||101||32.17%|
|Will Rogers Elementary||769||190||24.71%|
|Lynwood Unified District||17,021||9,674||56.84%|
The data isn’t perfect. Tardiness is incorporated into the numbers, which could skew the number of actual absentees. One could also argue that three days of unexcused absence may be strict. But at least California has made a first step towards reporting realistic attendance data — and school districts have information they can use to address the underlying causes of truancy.
This isn’t happening in a successful way. School districts in Los Angeles County haven’t exactly done a great job addressing truancy. Despite high-profile sweeps, anti-truancy ordinances and other efforts by districts in the county, the truancy rate countywide has barely budged between 2004-2005 and 2008-2009. L.A. Unified, even took the media-grabbing step of having its outgoing superintendent, Ramon Cortines and school board members go door to door to grab truants, is the only one that can report a decline, with a 34 percent decrease in truancy in that time. But even those efforts are only band-aids; more importantly, since the sweeps tend to happen during periods when districts must count up students in order to gain funding, the moves can viewed cynically as just ways to keep the money flowing without actually doing anything to address the underlying causes of truancy. School district officials and charter school operators in L.A. County must do a better job of addressing the underlying issues — as must their counterparts throughout the nation.
But at least California (along with Indiana) has taken a step that most other states — especially Virginia and Tennessee, two of the other states surveyed by Dropout Nation — refuse to do. Accurate, honest, publicly-reported data is the critical first step to making the technological and academic changes needed to stop truancy in its tracks — and keep every kid on the path to economic, social and personal success.
When it comes to America’s high school dropout crisis — and the overall crisis of low educational achievement — there are generally two responses at the state and local levels. The first is alarm and acknowledgment from those actively working to reform education. Those folks, no longer rare to be seen, are still in the (much-larger) minority. Those who usually run local school districts and state education agencies are generally unwilling to admit there are problems. They adapt the Officer Barbrady approach to the crisis, denying the statistics, attempting to polk holes in data, and generally behaving with little regard for the children in their care.
The latter typifies what is happening in Nevada, where the state schools superintendent and other defenders of traditional public education were none too pleased with the data from Education Week‘s Diplomas Count report, which proclaimed the state’s graduation rate for its Class of 2007 as the nation’s worst. State Superintendent Keith Rheault complained that the 42 percent graduation rate EdWeek estimates is far below the state’s own 67 percent calculation. He complains, in particular, that the magazine failed to account for student transfers to other states and the state’s own mobility.
This is rather laughable given that the Silver State is one of the nation’s fastest-growing states and has little in the way of out-migration. But even if one disagrees with how EdWeek calculates graduation rates, the reality is that by any measure, the kids aren’t graduating in Nevada and its largest county, Clark County (home to Las Vegas).
As you already know, Dropout Nation uses a simpler measure than that developed by EdWeek research czar (and dropout crisis researcher extraordinaire) Christopher Swanson. The measure compares eighth-grade enrollment against diploma recipients (or in the case of gender and racial measurements, progression to senior year of high school) five years later. Why eighth grade? Students are generally moved on from grade to grade, regardless of their level of academic achievement, until high school, when students must earn credits; this is when the dropout crisis manifests. Through this measure, one can simply (if not always perfectly) smooth out the ninth-grade bulge of freshmen left back from previous years because they because of the educational neglect wrought by schools, districts and teachers through the use of this social promotion.
Based on this calculation, a mere 56 percent of the 20,013 kids who originally made up the Silver State’s Class of 2007 graduated on time. That’s just 16,455 kids, if you are doing the math. What happened to the other 13,000 or so teens in the class? They likely dropped out.
No matter how Rheault tries to square it, Nevada is as likely to have a 67 percent graduation rate as I am likely to win the coming week’s Powerball drawing.
Graduation rates for Nevada’s school districts aren’t exactly overwhelming. Only 63 percent of Carson City’s Class of 2007 garnered their sheepskins, while just 56 percent of Washoe County’s (i.e. Reno and Sparks) freshmen made it to graduation. In tiny Mineral County, a mere 31 percent of the original Class of 2007 — 25 students — made it to graduation. Essentially, Nevada has a dropout crisis of stunning proportions, especially given it is a largely rural state with just one really large city.
That city, of course, is Las Vegas, which is part of Clark County schools, the largest school district in the state by a wide margin. About 9,070 of Clark County’s Class of 2007 likely dropped out; it accounts for about 70 percent of Nevada’s dropouts. It also presents us with one of the most-persistent elements of the dropout crisis in America: The boys aren’t graduating.
The white males barely trail behind their female peers, with only a 1.3 percent gap in Promoting Power rates. This isn’t so for the black and Latino children. Just 66.5 percent of young black men made it from freshman to senior year of high school versus 75.5 percent of their young black women peers. And while while 75.2 percent of young Latino women made it from freshman to senior year on time, just 64.5 percent of young Latino men made it.
Considering that the the females have higher levels of promoting power, the heart of the dropout crisis lies with the boys. But this isn’t the only thing that matters. Considering that so many college freshmen end up in remedial ed, the girls may not necessarily be doing better. This is especially true in a giant dropout factory like Clark County. But solving the dropout crisis here, as in other states, will have to start with the boys (and with reading).
Unlike Nevada officials, Clark County’s leaders are acknowledging the problem. They are trying to address one of the symptoms of at-risk behavior among students — chronic truancy (even if some of the methods are among the tried-and-failed used elsewhere) — and looking to engage parents in this discussion (albeit, not perfectly). It is at least a start, and certainly better than what Rheault seems to be doing. He’s failing to fully acknowledge the state’s dropout crisis. He also seems to be ignoring the crisis to come; 43 percent of Nevada’s 4th-graders read Below Basic proficiency, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Either way, Rheault and other education officials in the Silver State needs to stop rationalizing matters and simply admit the problem. Then get to work.
NEWS AND COMMENTARY inside — and outside — the dropout nation. Updates and new stories added throughout the day are marked with an *asterisk:
- The definition of insanity: School districts in Fort Bend, Texas, Houston, Saginaw, Mich., and Munster, Ind., are teaming up with local prosecutors and police departments to combat chronic truancy. Parents will be charged and fine for not keeping track of their children’s attendance while the kids themselves will be picked up. This isn’t a new tactic. The evidence that the sweep-and-fine method actually works to keep kids in school and gets them back on track towards graduation, however, remains elusive. More importantly, such programs don’t address one of the main reasons behind truancy: The low academic performance and lack of educational engagement (caused by not-so-rigorous curricula) of the children who often chronically skip school. Children realize their low academic performance even if they are getting promoted from grade to grade despite their low grades.
- The meaning of irresponsibility: The Senatobia School District in Mississippi — a state with an unbelievably awful record of academic failure — decided that it was time to offer General Education Development classes that will target 16-year-olds, according to The Democrat of Tate County. Yes, a school district decided to target teenagers that should be in school. Why gee whiz, why not simply offer the students free prison cells, liquor and Food Stamps at the same time. The school district should be finding ways to keep the 16-year-olds in school and on the path to graduation, not letting them drop out.
- Sadly, despite evidence that GEDs aren’t anywhere equivalent to a regular high school diploma, newspapers are reporting far too many feel-good stories about adults picking up one. One wonders if editors and reporters actually think these things through. Wait, I know far too well that they don’t.
- More Core Knowledge: Richard Whitmire reveals that the school reform outfit is unveiling a reading program and laments the end of Reading First.
- Kevin Carey reads Paul Tough’s piece on education reform in New Orleans and learns that, when it comes to parental involvement, schools need to be focused on that thing called parental engagement. Essentially, if schools want parents to get involved in student learning, they must also provide various levers by which they can be engaged.
- From where I sit, I also say that traditional public schools, public charters and private schools must also be willing to accept the reality that parents must be involved in education beyond just helping kids with the homework. Given the role that instructional methods can play in student learning and the reality that it is, at times, too easy for minority students to land in special education programs or not get into gifted programs, parents must also be actively involved in structuring how their children will learn. This won’t make administrators or teachers — the self-appointed experts in education — very happy. But it is key to stemming dropouts and gaining more involvement from parents.
- *Math teacher shortages, Volume XXX: California is making an ambitious — and frankly, overdue — move to require all 8th graders to learn beginning Algebra. For students — especially those who are not slated for the honors track that leads to college admission — such rigorous math work will help them gain the knowledge they need to get into whatever higher education option (be it college or trade programs) they choose upon graduation. Making the plan come into reality, however, is a problem because of a shortage of math teachers, notes the Sacramento Bee, a common problem throughout the nation. One possible solution should be alternative certification for mid-career professionals who want to get into teaching, but can’t afford to spend two-to-four years in ed school. Another is to finally begin offering higher pay for math and science positions; although it won’t lure all the math and science collegians into teaching — largely because the pay will still be lower than the incomes they can make in the tech sector and the reality that teaching is a harder job than most think it is — it will help alleviate those shortages. Attracting foreign math students and teachers into the profession through the use of skilled worker visas will also help; this is a reason why H-1B and other skilled immigration quotas should be increased or eliminated altogether.
Thinking — and writing — about the dropout nation. Updated throughout the day:
- Figuring out ways to keep them in school: Or at least that is the plan for school districts in Montgomery, Ala., Skokie, Illinois, and California’s San Bernardino County. All the plans, however, seem like rehashes of earlier regimes of bringing in police officers to ticket students and charging parents with failure to send their children to school. Not to say it doesn’t have some value. But the plans really should address the lack of academic rigor, the achievement gap issues and the other underlying factors that result in chronic truancy and eventually, leaving school without a sheepskin.
- How about raising expectations for special ed students: That’s the argument made by Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute in his San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, in which he criticizes the Golden Gate City’s school officials for opposing a state requirement — dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act — that those students must take the state’s high school exit exam. Given that the test only quizzes students on 8th-grade math and need only to get 55-to-60 percent of the answers correct, all but the most developmentally-disabled special ed students can pass it with some extra tutoring and help from their teachers and schools. Given that 28 percent of special ed students eventually dropped out during the 2004-05 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education, wouldn’t it make sense to figure out a way to keep those students in school?
- A GI Bill for K-12 students? That’s what David Kirkpatrick suggests in his latest column at EducationNews.org. And he notes that not only did the original GI Bill plan work, it didn’t bring additional federal regulations as opponents of the idea feared at the time. Perhaps it is time to create a federal voucher program and expand the level of federal funding to public charter schools.
- Are you kidding me? The College Board — the folks, along with Educational Testing Services, behind the Scholastic Aptitude Test — will roll out a version of the PSAT in 2010 designed to test 8th-graders and get them into college prep programs early. L.A. Unified may actually offer the new PSAT to all 8th-graders once it’s unveiled. That’s great news, especially for talented young black males and females, both nationwide and in the City of Angels, who often get shunted aside from such programs despite their high intelligence. But a few folks, according to the Los Angeles Times, think the tests should be given far earlier in 6th grade. They may be right, but 8th-grade testing is a start.
- Sometimes, Sol Stern needs to put down his pen: Kevin Carey gives the education policy legend the business for misusing the phrase “Lake Woebegon Effect” in his piece on New York’s math scores. My big issue with Stern on this one is more of the put-up-or-shut-up variety: He doesn’t offer any evidence of whether the students are progressing over time, simply comparing scores of whole grades of students — in this case, grade 3-through-8 — instead of, say doing a value-added time series in which he compares 5th grade student scores to their scores as 8th graders three years later. This method would likely give a better picture of how much of the test score improvement relates to the lowering of standards, natural cognitive growth as students or more effective instruction.
- Think before you speak?: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution takes a state education department official to task for declaring in a deposition that a school curriculum without a science component is an “adequate education.”
- What do Cheech and Chong and Randi Weingarten and the American Federation of Teachers have in common: According to Matthew Ladner, both are, umm, up in smoke.