Last week, the California Department of Education released statewide data on the dropout rates in California’s public schools for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

Statewide, out of nearly two million students enrolled in public high schools, the dropout rate is at 24.2 percent.

“Twenty-four percent of students dropping out is not good news,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

In Los Angeles County, of about 527,000 students enrolled in public high schools, the dropout rate is at 27.8 percent.

But where the real surprise was seen was in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, which showed a “four-year- derived” high school dropout rate (an estimate of the percent of students who would drop out in a four-year period based on data collected for a single year) of 24.3 percent, compared to the previous year’s 1.4 percent.

The district says it is certain the 2006-07 data is not accurate.

The dropout data released states that, in Santa Monica-Malibu high schools alone, nearly 300 students dropped out in 2006-07, compared to only 14 in 2005-06, 20 in 2004-05 and 21 a decade ago.

Again, the district confidently states that the 2006-07 dropout data is not accurate.

“We don’t have that kind of dropout rate,” said Dr. Sally Chou, the district’s chief academic officer. “We know it’s not that high. We are very concerned with the ’06-’07 school year [data]. We’re working to get those numbers corrected.”

Chou said what has happened is that the district’s exit codes — codes used when a student leaves the district — are not aligned with the new state exit codes.

This is the first year that the state has used Statewide Student Identifiers (SSID) to compile dropout data rates.

The Statewide Student Identifier provides each student a unique identification number and allows for much more accurate information about how many students are or are not completing their education, according to California Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung.

Before the Statewide Student Identifier system, dropout rates were derived using only aggregate data of enrollment and dropouts collected annually through the California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS), Jung said.

Now, individual student-level data allow districts and the state to collect and report what becomes of students who leave school. Each student withdrawing from a school is assigned a withdrawal code which indicates whether that student graduated, dropped out, withdrew, left the state or country, or completed their education in other ways, Jung said.

Chou said that the Santa Monica-Malibu district’s withdrawal codes are not currently matching the state’s withdrawal codes, which is creating higher dropout rates than are accurate.

“There are a handful of other districts that are going through the same thing,” Chou noted.

In the past, if a parent told a school that a student was transferring to a different school, the school would mark that student as having transferred to another public school.

But with the new Statewide Student Identifier system, the state can determine whether students marked as transfers indeed did enroll in another California public school, Jung said.

If the student does not show up at another California public school, there’s a reason for schools to try to find out what happened to the student.

“This will help ensure that students in our education system don’t fall through the cracks,” said O’Connell.

This is the first year that dropout counts are derived from student-level data.

And the California Department of Education notes that, as potential reporting errors are identified, local educational agencies have the opportunity to correct their dropout data, which the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is currently working on.

Corrections will be posted in mid-September, Jung said.

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