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Palo Alto High School Graduation Rate Plummets

Original post made by Eric Nee on May 15, 2007

The San Jose Mercury News reported today on high school graduation rates, and Palo Alto came out looking pretty bad. The graduation rate for Palo Alto Unified dropped from 99.5% in 2004-2005, to 94.6% in 2005-2006. That's a decline of nearly 5% in one year, one of the largest drops in the Bay Area.

Palo Alto's vaunted school district now has a lower graduation rate than school districts in Fremont, Milpitas, Scotts Valley, Mountain View-Los Altos, and Los Gatos-Saratoga. We're now about on par with Gilroy, which graduated 94.1% of its high school students.

I hope there's some explanation for this abysmal showing. Maybe it's a typo. But if not, I'd sure like to know what's going on. I've got one son at Paly, and two more on the way. These numbers do not give me a great deal of confidence in the direction our schools are headed.

Comments (25)

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2007 at 4:42 pm

That's very interesting Eric, thank you for pointing it out.

Checking the CA Dept of Ed web site, you can see the grad / dropout stats by year Web Link
Graduation Rates by School

There is a big jump this year in PA, both Gunn and Paly - dropouts had been single digits for several years up till last year, then 46 dropouts last year. There was a similar jump county-wide - 1300 hundred dropouts 3 years ago, 2000 2 years back, last year 2449.

That said, not all districts in the county supported the trend - Saratoga, for instance, was flat, as was Cupertino.

I tend to be wary of dropout rates, since they are very hard to track (did that kid drop out of school or move to North Dakota? did they come back and get a GED?), so I would not assume the worst. But it would be good to have a clear explanation. Are there any District Office people out there who can shed light on this?


I'm sure someone involved with the District is lurking out there - can

Would be

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Oops, apologies for the stray comments at the bottom - bad editting on my part...

Posted by Dave, a resident of Professorville
on May 16, 2007 at 7:36 am

It would not be surprising if the PAUSD performance on metrics like grad rates did NOT start to be affected by the ongoing turmoil in the district and the board. It is quite clear that the board, administrators and staff are distracted from their core mission (Education of our students) by the parallel soap operas.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2007 at 8:21 am

Plunges? That number sounds within the expected range of error.

Posted by Eric Nee, a resident of Professorville
on May 16, 2007 at 9:50 am

Walter- You say a 5% drop is within the "expected range of error." I don't know all of the details that go into these numbers, but I don't think there is much room for error. I have to believe that Gunn and Paly keep pretty good records of which student graduates and which student doesn't.

And yes, Fred, I suspect there are some students who go off to Foothill for a GED program, and the like, but I would assume that would be true for every district. So that doesn't explain why Palo Alto had such a steep drop in one year while comperable schools had none.

I think that Dave's observation is more likely - that what we are seeing are the results of poor leadership at the top and overcrowding of schools, which cause some of the more marginal students to get overlooked and consequently not graduate.

Posted by Draw the Line, a resident of Stanford
on May 16, 2007 at 12:40 pm

Didn't State Standardizes graduation testing begin to deny diplomas to those who didn't pass the test last year?

Posted by senioritis sufferer, a resident of Palo Verde
on May 16, 2007 at 8:35 pm

I believe you're referring to the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Exam). It is true that some seniors are being denied diplomas but I'm doubtful that students from PAUSD are incapable of passing the exit examination.

Administrators at Gunn have said that the students that never passed the exam never took it the day of while teachers have joked that middle-schoolers could pass this test.

I'm not trying to condescend or offend other districts that have low scores on the CAHSEE, but these statistics clearly point out disparities between regions.

Posted by SkepticAl, a resident of Ventura
on May 16, 2007 at 10:51 pm

I'm guessing that the decline (not "plummet" - really, come on now) has something to do with a change in calculation methods or reporting. Not that it should be ignored, but let's make sure we're comparing apples to apples. And the idea that drop-outs could be resulting from district tension at Churchill... another head-scratcher. Maybe some folks out here have time to obssess about that stuff, but you'd probably find most high-school teachers and staff surprisingly uninterested in 25 Churchill on a day-to-day basis.

Posted by Tim, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 17, 2007 at 7:35 am

Why slam Gilroy? Get use to surrounding cities coming "into our league". They seem to be doing better than us in most everything else.

Posted by parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 8:52 am

I hope folks are sending this particular question to the board of education and to the new superintendent.

This is a question worth getting to the bottom of. The real problem with diversion of 25 Churchill over the past year is not that they are directly responsibile for a drop in graduation rate, but that they will be too distracted and to care to figure out why. And much to arrogant to report out to the community.

(Although that the district management is arrogant is a lesson I've learned from years of watching MFC in action - perhaps our new Super will solve that. We'll soon find out.)

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 10:19 am

It would be nice to know what percent of those taking the CAHSEE exam failed it. I know we have fantastic students etc, as the senioritis person mentionned, but there is always a "failing" fraction in a district. There are many reasons to "fail" other than lack of effort or brains. Think of all the people we have who move in here from all over the world, what percent of them have insufficient English to pass the exam and graduate? Would that affect the grad rate?

I suspect it is as innocuous as this, but i would like to know. Will research this.

Posted by SkepticAl, a resident of Ventura
on May 17, 2007 at 10:35 am

Web Link

As expected, the drop reflects a change in calculating methods. At this time, we don't even know IF there's a real decline in PAUSD compared to previous years, because the data mean different things- the 99% and 95% are not using the same denominator.

So while some of you, as usual, are taking any opportunity to criticize and salivating at the chance to share your "outrage" with PAUSD over yet another perceived flaw, I hope you'll take a deep breath and channel your energy elsewhere. Isn't there a city bureacrat somewhere just begging to be abused?

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2007 at 1:23 pm

Thanks Al, for that link. I am not certain the article relates directly to the data collected in Santa Clara County, though. (For those who did not look, it is an article on national drop-out rates from the Washington Post.) There was a general rise in dropouts county-wide, but some districts did not show any rise at all. I tend to agree with you that it is more like a reporting artifact, but would be curious what the artifact is.

I have emailed the school district and will share what I find out.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 2:30 pm

Web Link

17 Seniors failed the English part of the CAHSEE exam last year.

Web Link

15 Failed the Math part.

Can't tell how much overlap there was in the two. But, presumably this accounts for at least some of the drop in the gradution rate.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2007 at 2:54 pm

Thank you, Resident. Those are right on point and very informative.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 3:45 pm

You are welcome Fred. Knowing there are people of good faith back on the forum who are interested in learning and sharing, not just dumping, makes it worth it.

Posted by SkepticAl, a resident of Ventura
on May 17, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Failing the CAHSEE would, as of last year, prevent students from receiving a diploma, and would seem relevant to the notable shift in the stats for that year. But would a CAHSEE failure be counted as a dropout? Did some of these seniors stay in school until the end anyway but not get the diploma? Seems to me that the new counting method would misidentify the problem. Yes, students who fail CAHSEE represent a problem, related to - but not identical to- dropping out.

Posted by eric, a resident of Mountain View
on May 17, 2007 at 5:01 pm

Begs the question: pre-CASHEE, how much 'social promotion' was happening in the PAUSD? It is quite clear to me that your schools have been underreporting the number of HS seniors that are not cutting the mustard.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2007 at 5:36 pm

What we are beginning to see is perhaps what is happening in our schools (not necessarily just PAUSD) from low standards. We hear in the media of all these students across the state who cannot pass the CAHSEE because of poor English, or other abilities, and we should feel sorry for them. What is clear is that there are many students who have in the past not been able to do the basic English and Math levels of education and have been allowed to get away with it. Now at last there is a standard that everyone must pass to graduate. Anyone who cannot pass these tests are not up to scratch. Giving them opportunities every year, helping with English, giving them additional attention after school, etc. and they still do not have the basics. These students need to get an education, not an excuse as to why they can't pass.

If the students who are not able to pass the test in Palo Alto schools are students who have been here for some time, then our schools are failing them and that means they are failing us. If these are relative newcomers to Palo Alto, then they need to be given the necessary help to pass. But, don't change the reporting method just to make the figures look better.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2007 at 5:57 pm

Parent -

Thank you for that sentiment which I think we can all agree with.

Did someone say the reporting method should be changed?


Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2007 at 8:35 pm

Well, here is some additional info from the District (received via private email):

- only 1 student failed to graduate last year due to CAHSEE who was actually attending Gunn or Paly
- they had "numerous others" in other venues, ranging from community colleges to special placements, whom were tested and some of whom did not pass (including special education students)
- the way numbers were calculated did change, in that they now send their records to the state DoE instead of their own counts, and the state calculates for them.

My sense, though not certain, is that they did not count the non-Gunn/Paly kids who did not graduate as "drop outs" previously, while the state just uses the gross numbers (in the spirit of No Child Left Behind). About half the districts in the state have apparently shifted over to the "new" reporting system, so that may explain why we (and others) jumped while some other districts did not change at all.

So the shift in the numbers is probably, at least in substantial part, an artifact.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2007 at 8:34 am

Well done, Fred!

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 18, 2007 at 8:36 am

forgot to say, though, that drop-outs weren't the original question, failure to graduate was. So, unclear where the drop-out question entered. They are, indeed, different subjects.

Posted by Fred, a resident of Barron Park
on May 18, 2007 at 9:25 am

Resident, you are right of course. But I *think* (not 100% sure) that the grad rates reported were the inverse of the drop-out rates, i.e., grads + drop-outs = the denominator of both rates. That is my interpretation from the CDE web site, where our drops outs spiked while grad rates dropped. I did not research thoroughly I'm afraid, but that was why I focused on the drop-out number.


Posted by Parent, a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 19, 2007 at 8:13 pm

Wow, what a polite and informative thread. Thanks!

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