An overlooked corner of the dropout problem became more visible Thursday when state officials for the first time released the dropout rate for eighth-graders.
Statewide, about 3.5% of eighth-graders — 17,257 in all — left school and didn't return for ninth grade, according to the state count now available with a system for tracking students individually.
The California Department of Education released the new dropout and graduation rates, the first such report based on unique identification numbers for every public school student. It looked at eighth-graders in the 2008-09 academic year and students who started high school in 2006 and should have graduated four years later.
Overall, 74.4% of California high school students graduated in four years, according to state data; 18.2% dropped out. The remainder were still in school (6.6%), were in non-diploma programs for disabled students (0.5%) or left high school by taking the General Educational Development (GED) Test (0.4%).
Steep gaps persist in the comparative fates of different ethnic groups. The graduation rate is 68% for Latinos, 59% for African American students and 56% for students who are learning English. This compares with 83.4% for whites and 89.4% for Asians.
"The data reveal the sad truth about our state's four-year graduation rates and California's failure to adequately serve all of our students," said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West, an Oakland-based advocacy organization.
The latest numbers could still underestimate the number of dropouts, because, for example, they depend on school clerks verifying whether a student dropped out, moved or transferred to a private school.
Most experts say the new system is more reliable than what it replaced and that the data on eighth-graders are a helpful, if worrisome, benefit.
Among eighth-graders statewide, about 4,200 dropped out during the academic year; more than 13,000 finished eighth grade but didn't show up for ninth, the traditional beginning of high school.
"That transition from middle school to high school is crucial," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. "Those years are vulnerable years for many students, especially if a student loses hope, gets off track or falls behind."
He said dropping out is the culmination of a problem that probably has been building for years. Students who are behind in reading skills by the third grade, or nonnative speakers who don't make the transition from Spanish to English, can fall increasingly behind in all their subjects. And there is pressure in some families to earn money rather than stay in school.
The Los Angeles Unified School District did not provide figures for its eighth-graders, although it has the data. It did, however, deliver related news: The graduation rate in the state's largest school system has improved slightly but remains low — and worse even than the figure calculated by the state.
"The sobering reality is that the graduation rate for LAUSD is too low," said Supt. John Deasy.
L.A. Unified's estimated graduation rate for the four-year period is 55%. However, the state's new system places the district's rate at 64.2%.
And a broadly adopted formula used by the National Center for Education Statistics credits L.A. Unified with graduating 70.4% of high school students in four years.
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has long sided with experts who believe dropout numbers are higher than reported, expressed ongoing doubt about the new state numbers.
"We still don't have an accurate way to determine who's dropping out," he said, citing studies that estimate L.A. Unified's four-year high school dropout rate at more than 50%. (The state-calculated dropout rate for L.A. Unified is 26.1%.)
Two high schools managed by the mayor's nonprofit organization —Roosevelt in Boyle Heights and Santee south of downtown — are graduating more students than previously, but still recorded among the worst four-year graduation rates in L.A. Unified, 41% and 44% respectively, the district reported.