For the first time, the California Department of Education has released figures for the dropout rate for eighth graders. About 3.5 percent of eighth graders — a total of 17,257 in all — do not return for ninth grade, says the Los Angeles Times. About 4,200 students dropped out during the academic year and more than 13,000 finished eighth grade, only to not show up for ninth grade.
Overall, 18.2 percent of California high school students drop out, according to the state’s data. 74.4 percent graduate in four years. The remaining 7.4 percent of students were still in school (6.6 percent), in non-diploma programs for students with disabilities (0.5 percent) or had left high school by taking the General Educational Development (GED) Test (0.4 percent). Different ethnic groups also show “steep gaps” in graduate rates in California, with graduation rate for Latinos 68 percent, 59 percent for African American students and 56 percent for students who are learning English. For white students, the graduation rate is 83.4 for whites; for Asian students, 89.4 percent.
It’s possible that these drop out rates could be even higher. The numbers the state’s Department of Education cites are based on verification by school clerks about whether a student has dropped out, moved or transferred to a private school. There could be more students who drop out after eighth grade, or somewhere along the way in high school, but never go through the formal process of reporting such to the school district.
State Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson points out that dropping out is the “culmination of a problem that probably has been building for years.” If students fall behind in reading by the third grade, or are non-native speakers who “don’t make the transition from Spanish to English.” they also fall more and more behind in all subjects. Torlakson underscores the importance of the transition from middle to high school, saying that “those years are vulnerable years for many students, especially if a student loses hope, gets off track or falls behind.”
Middle school students are also all the more vulnerable because the middle school years coincide with children entering puberty and making the transition from childhood to teenagehood. Changes in their bodies, in their social interactions and much, much more all make middle school a highly challenging time at the end of which students have to move on to another school for high school. Making the transition to high school as successful as possible is a topic that educators are well aware of, with some states having programs specifically geared at easing and intervening in this transition.
My own son Charlie is 14 years old; he attends a county autism program and will be there for the duration of his education. Come the day after Labor Day, he’ll be in a secondary-level classroom rather than an intermediate one. His teachers have been working on a smooth transition by gradually introducing him all summer (Charlie attends summer school or Extended School Year) to his new teacher’s classroom. Still, the past few days have been rather rocky for Charlie. He seems excited to move onto a new classroom and a program with more emphasis on vocational skills but he is definitely still attached to his old teacher (who he had for almost two years) and classroom.
Charlie is certainly not in any danger of something like dropping out of school but seeing him struggle reminds us that, moving up to high school is a big deal and — especially for those vulnerable students who are still struggling with basic academic skills like reading at grade level — strategies need to be in place. The†Los Angeles Times notes that “there is pressure in some families to earn money rather than stay in school.” The point must be made again: Higher rates of education are closely correlated with higher lifetime earnings and an eight grade education just isn’t going to get one too far.
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