The number of students graduating from Los Angeles public schools has declined for two straight years even as enrollment in the 12th grade has been rising sharply, new state data show. The graduation slump began when California started requiring students to pass an exit exam before they could receive a diploma.
The data caught educators by surprise after they were quietly posted on the state Department of Education website. Separately, new research released this week indicated that only 48% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District graduate on time.
The latest figures are sure to stir new concerns about the ability of Los Angeles schools to serve the needs of the majority of their students, and revive a debate about the wisdom of mandating an exit exam, even one that has been described as requiring only about an eighth-grade education to pass.
The Los Angeles Unified School District officially declared a 64% graduation rate in 2005-06, the most recent year for which a rate is available. District leaders have long disputed studies that have shown the rate to be under 50%.
But district officials did not reject the findings of the latest study, released Thursday by the California Dropout Research Project at UC Santa Barbara. Perhaps the most in-depth study ever done of Los Angeles dropouts, it examined individual student transcripts for the class that began ninth grade in September 2001 and should have graduated in June 2005.
"It's a good methodology," said Esther Wong, L.A. Unified's assistant superintendent for planning, assessment and research, who reviewed a draft of the study. "It's certainly better than trying to calculate it and do a best estimate."
Wong did question whether the study might have understated the graduation rate by not accounting for students who transferred to other districts. But Jeannie Oakes, a professor of education at UCLA who oversaw the research, said such students were removed from the count of incoming ninth-graders, so they could not have tainted the findings.
The study concluded that the low graduation rate for L.A. Unified can be explained in large measure by the quality of students' middle school experience and the quality of teachers at their high schools.
"We've learned from this that middle school is just hugely important," said Oakes, who runs UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education & Access. Although the dropout project is based at UC Santa Barbara, it relies on researchers at several institutions, and the study was conducted at UCLA.
The study found that differences among schools -- for instance, the percentage of highly qualified teachers, the percentage of English learners and the status of the school as a magnet -- played a stronger role in predicting whether a student would graduate than "student factors," such as race and socioeconomic status.
Magnet schools had a major effect on success. Nearly three-quarters of the students attending an L.A. Unified magnet high school graduated on time, compared with just 45% of those who didn't. Magnet schools typically offer specialized, theme-based instruction and were mandated by a court order to attract students of different races.
The dropout study and the recently released state data foreshadow the release of new and potentially explosive statistics on the state dropout rate that are expected in mid-July. Because California has begun assigning new, statewide identification numbers to all public-school students, the dropout data are expected to be far more accurate than in the past, when there was near-universal acknowledgment that the numbers vastly understated the problem.
Statewide, 12th-grade enrollment has been rising for several years, the result of a baby boomlet in the late 1980s. Meanwhile, the number of high school graduates has stayed stagnant.
In Los Angeles Unified, the rise in enrollment has been steeper than for the state overall, yet the number of graduates declined from 29,744 in 2005 to 27,438 in 2007.
The high school exit exam, often referred to by its acronym, CAHSEE, became a requirement for a diploma beginning with seniors who graduated in 2006. State and local officials widely agreed that it was the most likely cause for a decline in graduates.
"I can't think of any other reason," said Keric Ashley, director of data management for the California Department of Education. "The CAHSEE does have some impact, not as much as some people thought it would."
John Rogers, a UCLA professor who has studied the exit exam's effect on graduation rates, said he believes the state has downplayed its impact. The exam will hit the class of 2008 especially hard, he said, because for the first time, special education students had to pass the test.
"In 2008, far fewer students will graduate than probably any year over the last 25 years," Rogers said.
Figures for 2008 graduates aren't expected until next spring.
Debra Duardo, the director of dropout prevention and recovery for Los Angeles Unified, said there were no surprises in the new data, and the dropout project study confirmed what district officials have assumed about the barriers that keep students from graduating.
For instance, as others have done previously, the researchers pointed to algebra as a tripwire for many students.
Seventy percent of students who passed Algebra 1 by the end of ninth grade went on to graduate on time.
But the majority of students did not pass it in eighth or ninth grades, and roughly two-thirds of them failed to graduate on time.
The study found that students who changed schools during either middle or high school had much lower graduation rates, including students who switched between the sixth and seventh grades.
Duardo said the district is responding to those problems.
She also said the study overlooked the district's recent success in keeping students in school, and on track to graduate, after they miss their normal graduation date.
"If they don't do it in four years, maybe they can do it in five years," she said.