Dropout rate far higher than Fresno Unified reports, critics say

Special to The BeeNovember 19, 2011 

What is the true dropout rate in Fresno?

Teachers, administrators and community activists generally place the overall dropout rate in Fresno Unified at between 30% and 40%. They say the figure is considerably higher for Hispanic, black and Hmong male students -- somewhere between 50% and 65%.

But the school district, in various reports and public statements over the past five years, has listed the overall dropout rate in the 15% to 20% range.

Before a community can fully address the dropout issue, it must be able to pin down the extent of the problem, says Russell Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who headed the California Dropout Research Project.

In his new book, "Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can be Done About It," Rumberger details several moving parts in trying to come up with dropout figures that reflect reality. Struggling students frequently disappear from a middle school or high school, but did they drop out or simply transfer to another district? "That's where the record-keeping can get sloppy," Rumberger said.

Under a recent California law, school districts are no longer allowed to estimate the number of dropouts. Now, school districts must actually track each student group from the ninth grade to graduation -- a more accurate but still not perfect method.

In 2009-10, Fresno Unified listed its overall "dropout rate" at 20.1%, an increase of two percentage points over the past five years. But the actual dropout rate, education experts say, is considerably higher.

Hundreds of middle school dropouts, for instance, were not counted in the rate. Then there were the additional 13% of seniors in Fresno Unified who failed to earn enough credits to graduate in 2010 but were still eligible to re-enroll. These seniors were not counted as dropouts even though the majority of them will never finish high school.

Kathy McDonell, who taught for 11 years at Edison High before moving to Tehipite Middle School, said the school district uses a different dropout figure at faculty and in-service meetings.

"Behind closed doors, the district tells us that 50% of the freshmen will not make it to graduation," she said. "In my classes at Edison High, 60% of the neighborhood kids were severely behind in their credits."

According to Fresno Unified calculations, Edison High School showed the biggest jump in its dropout rate over the past five years. In 2005-06, the district reported the dropout rate at Edison to be only 2%. In 2009-10, it reported the rate at 13%. Fresno High was reported to have the single highest dropout rate last year at 23%. Bullard High was reported to have the lowest dropout rate, though it rose from 4% to 12% over the past five years.

Because official dropout rates can be reported different ways, many education researchers prefer looking at the flip side of the equation: how many freshman students actually stood in line at graduation four years later -- the so-called "graduation rate."

Using this method, Fresno Unified lists the 2010 graduation rate for each racial group, top to bottom, as follows: Asian students at 78%; whites at 73%; Hispanics at 62%; and blacks at 57%.

Fresno Unified lists the overall graduation rate for the class of 2010 at 66%.

But these figures can be misleading, as well. The 2006 freshman class at Fresno Unified numbered 7,495 students, records show. Four years later, only 3,997 students in that class -- 53% -- actually graduated.

Even accounting for two variables -- the transfer of students to outside districts and the freshman class having inflated numbers because some freshmen are retained from the previous year -- this 53% graduation figure for the class of 2010 does not stack up well with other school districts.

In fact, Fresno Unified ranked below every other large or medium-sized school district in the state, with the exception of Los Angeles and San Bernardino. Long Beach Unified, which is often compared to Fresno Unified for its size and diversity, had a graduation figure of 72%.

Likewise, the school districts surrounding Fresno Unified showed a much higher graduation figure for the class of 2010. At Fowler Unified, 93% of freshmen ended up graduating four years later. At Clovis Unified, the figure was 82%. At Central Unified, it was 80%, and at Sanger Unified, it was 82%.

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