Attacking California’s high school drop-out epidemic

As students begin the graduation process at high schools throughout California, we thought it would be helpfu to take a look at how many young people who start high school actually graduate. We know that the drop-out rate in California is unacceptably high and that it overwhelmingly affects young people of color and low socio-economic standing. We need to ask ourselves whether the current system, with the required exit exam and the unfunded No Child Left Behind program is fixing the problem, or making it worse.
Senators Darrell Steinberg and Gloria Romero have introduced legislation that is currently moving through the legislature that tries to deal with the issue. We’ve asked Speak Out California Board Member, R. Stanley Oden, Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State University at Sacramento, and long-time political activist, to give us his observations on this epidemic. Are we doing what we can to help our students navigate through the world of employment and the hope of opportunity often so elusive to those who come through high school empty-handed?

Here is Professor Oden’s response:
Creating Educational Apartheid in California
The ingredients are currently in the mix for the creation and emergence of educational apartheid in California’s K-12 school system. These are related to the State of California’s institution of a rigid, discriminatory and useless high school exit exam, an exam that must be passed in order to receive a high school diploma.
This issue of high school testing has exacerbated the already drastic drop-out rates among high school youth and even younger. These two ingredients are mixed with the draconian No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, a program which subjects primarily black, Latino poor and working class students to the pressures of trying to gain educational competence in inferior schools, and in socially and economically challenged communities, without providing sufficient economic resources to support these students and these communities.
Educational apartheid occurs in schools where there exists only a 50% chance that a student will receive a high school diploma. Several years ago it was reported that the drop-out rate in Oakland was at 52% (San Francisco Chronicle, April 5, 2005, p.1). And recently, a study by John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA, claims that “the statewide graduation rate went from 73 percent during the five years before the exam kicked in as a requirement to 63 percent in 2006, the first year students had to pass the test to graduate” (Sacramento Bee, May 8, 2007, p. A-4). These lower graduation rates affect entire communities by generating young people with no viable skills, skills which are needed in this high-tech, information-based economy. This leaves few options for many unskilled and educationally deficient young people except to work on low paying jobs, or face the temptations of being involved in criminal activity (over a third of young African Americans and Latinos are now connected to the criminal justice system).
There are two issues here that affect the drop-out rate: the high school exit exam and the method of teaching prescribed by the No Child Left Behind program. Linda Darling-Hammond, a leading education expert, articulated her thoughts on the hope as contrasted to the dreadful reality of NCLB: ” Perhaps the most adverse unintended consequence of NCLB is that it creates incentives for schools to rid themselves of students who are not doing well, producing higher scores at the expense of vulnerable students’ education.” (The Nation, May 21, 2007, p.16). She concludes, “As a consequence of high-stakes testing, graduation rates for African-American and Latino students have declined in a number of states” (The Nation, May 21, 2007, p. 16)
Locally, the California high school exit exam has increased the drop-out rate. It was reported that “roughly 145,000 students, or 30 percent of the senior class, might be missing out on a diploma and the opportunities that come with it.” The estimate comes from a 2005 report by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (Sacramento Bee, May 7, 2007, p. A-3). The high school exit exam has placed those young people, many who are taught in inner-city schools or in poor or working class communities, in jeopardy of being relegated to low wage service-oriented work or opportunities in the street. These students have been taught in conditions not equivalent to suburban and middle class areas. They are being penalized because of the lack of adequate funding for education, lack of consistent quality teaching, and the preponderance of testing — instead of the intellectual engagement and knowledge building that relates to the student’s realities. Many educational researchers argue that there must be a holistic approach to education. Dr. Pedro Noguera, a graduate of U.C. Berkeley, professor of sociology at New York University, and author of two outstanding books on the educational achievement gap for black and Latino youth, identifies several crucial elements needed to turn around the educational apartheid in schools in California and across the nation. (The Nation, May 21, 2007). These are:
1.Responding to the nonacademic needs of poor children
2.Holding state governments accountable for high standards in schools.
3.Making schools more responsive to the parents and families they serve through systems
of mutual accountability.
4.Involving teachers in mentoring and evaluating their peers.
These ideas lay a basis for challenging and changing the No Child Left Behind programs. The constant need to test, in order to hold teachers and students accountable for learning, has harmed students who need a greater social and educational infrastructure to help close the achievement gap and lower the drop-out rates.
Finally, at the state level, State Senator Darrell Steinberg and several other legislators, including State Senator Gloria Romero, are proposing legislation (SB 219) that ties a school’s academic performance rating (API) to its drop-out rate. This bill will hopefully make school districts more accountable for the massive drop-out rate. In SB 405, Steinberg is proposing increasing the availability of college-prep and career technical classes; in SB 218, expanding the number of high school students who are also enrolled in local community colleges; and in SB 344, offering more assistance to struggling middle-school students.
These bills and the awareness of state legislators are necessary to turn around the existing divided system of educational apartheid in California. We need to support these bills. Progressives in the state need to help reform or end both the NCLB program and the high school exit exam, which is decimating the futures of many of our young people.