Yesterday’s LA Times editorial pointed to a dirty little secret—no, make that a dirty BIG secret—that has long been denied by the Los Angeles Unified School District—namely the fact that it is in an LA public school’s best interest to let its low-performing kids drop out.
You see, if a school lets its low end kids leave (or, in some cases, shoves them out the door) there is absolutely no penalty. In fact, there’s “a perverse incentive,” as one California lawmaker put it, because those kids who are struggling academically bring down a school’s overall test scores. And right now in America, educationally speaking, test scores appear to be all we care about.
At least that’s what our existing systems tell us.
Here’s the deal: The way the state of California rates the performance of an individual school (or a school district) is with a set of calculations called the Academic Performance Index—or API. And the way the API is figured has primarily to do with how that school’s students perform on yearly standardized tests. So if certain kids are bringing a particular school’s scores down and those kids start skipping school, or if you can give them a nice little push over to, say, a continuation school….hell, do it! Let ‘em go.
There’s no reason not to. (Except maybe the good of the community, the city, the nation…and one’s immortal soul. But who’s counting?)
Did I mention that continuation schools aren’t figured into a district’s API score?
In terms of federal No Child Left Behind requirements there is a different system of assessment, but the same perverse incentives to get low performers O-U-T. The NCLB measurement is called AYP—or Adequate Yearly Progress. Basically, a school’s AYP is calculated according to how many of its students test proficient in math and English, plus whether the school’s proficiency scores have improved over the last year or not. Kids who are struggling in class are the kids most likely to bring down the AYP. Simple as that.
The net result is, points out the Times, that “…California’s children are abandoning school at the rate of about 150,000 a year — a number equivalent to the population of Torrance, or Irvine, or all of Imperial County.”
In Los Angeles, specifically, the dropout rate hovers around 50 percent. And schools are doing little to stem that tide. In some case’s they’re actively helping the tide along by transferring troublesome kids from school to school for minor infractions until the unhappy kid gets the message and doesn’t come back at all. (LAUSD euphemistically calls this policy an “opportunity transfer”)
The consequence isn’t pretty:
We can squabble about the exact percentage of students leaving schools in L.A., but more than 35,000 students disappeared from the class of 2005 between the first day of ninth grade and the last day of 12th grade. Where do they go? Too often, dropouts fall into gangs and crime. Los Angeles is the gang capital of the nation. California has the largest prison population in the country, and more than 80% of the state’s prison population did not graduate from high school.
So what to do?
The Times likes a package of bills introduced by State Senator Darrell Steinberg, that has recently made it out of committee and to the the Assembly floor. One of the things the package does is to hold schools accountable for their dropout rates—or partially accountable anyway—by factoring dropout rates into the calculation of the API.
Of course, the Steinberg bill package doesn’t address the NCLB end of the problem. And it’s no kind of comprehensive solution. (For that we’d need…..you know…..better schools.)
But at least it acknowledges there IS problem.