Letter: School district’s dropout statistics are misleading

Letter to the editor

Posted by on Sat, March 18, 2006

By Ken Johnson

When the Half Moon Bay Review, the Cabrillo Unified School District, and CUSD Superintendent John Bayless intersect; there can be casualties. The first is truth. The second is student education. The third is good old-fashioned common sense.

This was the case in the Review’s editorial on 8 March 2006. The editorial misled the public about the true status of CUSD student achievement, graduation and dropout rates. In an attempt to provide a clearer picture of reality, I wrote a “Letter to the Editor”, which was published in this week’s Review. The editor also chose to include an “Editor’s note” citing information from CUSD Superintendent Bayless which further misled the public.

I got involved with the question of inaccurate graduation and dropout rates a couple of years ago. I went to a CUSD Board meeting with charts in hand showing a far different picture than the District was claming. I presented them to Superintendent Bayless for “review” before the meeting began. He objected to their accuracy and offered to review them in detail. I played along, having already concluded he needed to be treated as if he were a ‘hostile witness—know the answer to any question before you ask it’. His email response to me on Wed 03-Mar-04 10:03 was:

“The number is correct, but unfortunately the interpretation is not.  The number that is represented is the number that is derived from California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS) which is a number that is collected in early October.  Unfortunately for Cabrillo Unified School District, during the 2000-2001 school year, a number of our seniors left before the end of the year. We are able to identify where these students went, what occurred and why they left in the winter and spring. …”

[Superintendent Bayless ‘made the email public’ at a subsequent board meeting. He was apparently unaware that email to and from a public agency is already a discoverable document under the public records act.]

I had already done the research confirming that this was a pattern that stretched back as far as data was available and presented them to the School Board. They were not pleased with exploding another myth!

Today, school districts are held accountable for senior graduation rates and the passing rate on the CAHSEE exam is very visible in the media. That is why a senior class size of 279 students seemed so suspicious. Last year, as juniors, they were a class of 317 students; and three years ago when they started High School, hopeful of the future, there were 316 students in the class of 2006. Enrolment had actually increased from their freshman year to their junior year.

Given this background, the Editor’s note seems particularly curious: “He [Bayless] notes that some students leave the school over the course of their academic careers - some returning to Mexico - and that explains why some incoming freshmen do not graduate at Half Moon Bay High School.”

Shouldn’t someone have spotted such a relatively large group, 12% of last year’s junior class—with all their belongings—heading to the Mexico border?
The Editor’s note continued: “He [Bayless] points to state figures showing fewer than 1 percent of students dropped out in the 2003-04 school year, the last for which figures are available.”

The note didn’t mention that it was CUSD that first reported TO the state on how many students were dropouts! The report was completed by CUSD on the “School Information Form, October 2003” Section F lines 32 – 37.

Heard of ‘circular reasoning’? Arrogance? Insulting the public’s intelligence? Accountability?

Do you love “coincidences and irony” with a righteous ending? You may recall that in February of 2005, CUSD Superintendent John Bayless was interviewing for the school superintendent job in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was a shame that Bayless didn’t seize the opportunity to take the healthy walk over to the “Civil Rights Project at Harvard University” (CRP). He might have gotten a prerelease autographed copy of “Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California” as his own school district (CUSD) was the prototypical example in the study. Bayless “withdrew” from consideration just hours before he was to have his final interview!

Ken Johnson


I’m afraid you lost me.

You seem to be saying that the drop-out rate is higher than officially admitted. You point to the evidence of a smaller senior class this year than the junior class last year. Am I right so far?

Did you account for the students who really did go to Mexico, or went at least to a different school district in the US?

Did the rate of incoming students change (perhaps a 12% exit rate is the norm and it is the entry rate that has changed)?

Is this phenomena something new this year or is it part of a pattern over a number of years?

Your claim may be true or it may not be true—I don’t see anything in the information you present that convinces me to worry quite yet.


I think that what Ken is saying is that nobody has officially verified what actually happened to the missing seniors—-and that a similar number seems to go missing year after year, without ever being reflected in the official graduation statistics.

It’s surprisingly difficult to find historical graduation numbers for California school districts in general, and CUSD in particular—surprising because enrollment is tracked very closely, and graduation rates are generally seen to be important.

But as Ken suggests, bare graduation percentages tell us relatively little, if we don’t have the numbers behind them.

If we’re just seeing normal movement to and from Mexico, then it’s a little surprising that we see the effect only in 12th grade, while grades 9-12 are relatively stable.

I think Ken is doing a little more than simply raising the issue that there is no verification of what happened to the missing seniors, etc. As I read his somewhat meamdering post I get the clear suggestion that he thinks there is a major problem occuring at the high school and that there is a cover-up of that problem by school officials. That’s a high level of accusation considering the lack of any supporting data. (Innuendo doesn’t count, I’m afraid.)

Jonathan says that it is suprising that, if this is normal movement to and from Mexico, it occurs only in the 12th grade. Assuming that we are talking about students from Mexico (which I have seen zero data to back that up) then a big movement in the 12th grade seems plausible, perhaps expected, for a whole host of reasons both economic (jobs) and social (girlfriends, wives). I simply ccan’t imagine why a high school senior might consider Mexico City a more attractive place to be compared to Half Moon Bay (joke!).

What this debate lacks is data. You don’t need cooperation from Bayless to do a simple analysis.

Start with the school yearbook. Compare junior to senior. Take the gradution lists—aren’t they published in the paper like in other parts of the country? With only one high school isn’t it a simple afternoon project to learn:

1)  How many students appear on the senior roles that weren’t in the junior roles. (New entrants)

2) How many juniors vanish by senior graduation time. (Exits)

3) Look at the pictures, look at the names. Can you make a crude generalization if a “gone to Mexico” theory can still be true?

4) You have names of possible drop-outs. You are assuming that they have not moved. We are only talking about a few dozen kids—why not just call each of them and see if they dropped out?

Of course, you can skip all that nonsense and, in what appears to be a coastide tradition, and write incendiary letters to local news outlets! What fun!



Sorry I “lost” you. Lets walk you out of the Labyrinth and anomalies of CUSD reporting.

As described in the letter, about 2 years ago I presented to the CUSD Board multi year analysis showing the “disappeared”. Enrolment, graduation, and dropout rates that showed a clear repeating pattern when looked at over their progression through the high school.

I had been ‘alerted’ by a friend about a year earlier who was working more closely with Latino students that there was a problem in their treatment. In response, I downloaded to the servers a significant amount of multiyear data from the state into databases. More than a decade is available. And searched for anomalies.

There was an anomaly in the data regarding “dropout” reporting. CUSD was reporting an extraordinary low rate of dropouts when compared to any other norm; matched to a very low rate of graduates versus enrolment. If they didn’t graduate and they didn’t dropout; where did they go?

It is Superintendent Bayless or his designee who actually reports TO the state who was a dropout.

Maybe I should throw in additional info: CUSD is paid by the state essentially by a head count per day of student attendance. If they fall into some more intensive requirements, they may receive a little more money. When they “disappeared” during their senior year, income was maximized.

At that time, if a student ‘disappeared’ from the system rather than being reported as a dropout – no foul, no penalty. There was no verification or validity checking by the state to final student disposition. No confirmation of ‘moves’.

Today, over the sever objections of various school lobbies; a system is underway that will allow tracking of students. The number of dubious claims of moves is expected to decline.

Now, you might understand my reaction to a claim that suddenly, during the year just before accountability intensifies, that 12 percent of the junior class ‘went back to Mexico’. 

Please click on the link to the CPR report issued last year “Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis in California” to better understand how it affects all of us!

Ken Johnson


For a link to graduation rates expressed as Graduates as a % of Grade 12 Enrollment in county sorted including CUSD try http://cusd.info/coastsider/chart1.htm
Then click on school district name. You can work around a dozen years of state data then.

Ken Johnson

The following Dan Walters column from the Sacramento Bee addresses this issue:

Dan Walters: Dry statistical report portends immense tragedy in the making

“California is finally implementing a system to track its 6-plus million public school students by assigning identification numbers, which should allow us to finally pin down how many drop out without finishing high school. ....

For years, California has maintained the polite fiction that its official dropout rate isn’t too bad - about 3 percent per year, based on unaudited reports that school districts provide to the state. Others who have studied the situation come to a far less rosy conclusion - that upward of a third of those who begin the ninth grade fail to graduate from high school.”


Here’s the average cohort size for the last five classes we have graduation data for (ending 2003-04), based on the enrollment and graduation numbers that the district reports to the state (thanks to Ken for a link to the grad data).

306 9th grade
313 10th grade
301 11th grade
286 12th grade
238 graduated

That looks to me like a dropout rate of about 20%, with most of the dropouts happening during the senior year, and the rest in the junior year.

The ten-year averages show a similar pattern.


Thanks, seems it is only the Review and CUSD that disbelieve in the “Graduation Rate Crisis”!

You can find more information on CALPADS (California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System), the system that allows for tracking a student’s academic performance over time, at:

CDE, California Department of Education, also officially released today (21Mar06) rankings for California schools. You can find the ranking of CUSD schools within San Mateo County at:

Ken Johnson

If “upwards of a third” of high school students are dropping out on the midcoast (or even 16.8%, as suggested above) then it should be child’s play to come up with extensive, in-depth evidence of such a disaster without the need to read the tea-leaves of class cohort sizes.

I still have not seen that evidence.

I’m not saying drop-out rates are high and I’m not saying they are low. I’m saying the evidence is weak and unconvincing.


The evidence is convincing that we routinely lose about 20% of our high school cohorts between 10th grade and graduation. At the very least, that’s suggestive of a fairly high dropout rate.

If, as Darin suggests, it’s child’s play to analyze the data in depth, then surely the administration will want to do the analysis.

Darin, do you have an alternative explanation of the numbers?

Here’s an interesting article:

Would you define these students, who have so far failed to pass the graduation test, as drop-outs? I don’t think that I what I had in mind but I believe they would show up in the above numbers as drop-outs.


I’m not sure what else these is to say—few facts have been presented to support the case of an alarmingly high drop-out rate—I think the burden is on those making such claims to define their terms and develop their evidence.

I would be happy to do it for Ken and others but I charge by the hour :)


Google “Flat Earth Society” – it is impossible to convince everyone!
“Graduation Rate Crisis”, “missing” and “disappeared” are words I used. It is a diploma on time that is a measure of success.

You referenced a very nice article – irrelevant—but nice. You seem to have missed the part about the data discussed is PRIOR to the CAHSEE being mandatory for graduation. In fact, you missed the part about the pattern existing before the CAHSEE was even offered!

As to expectation of passing the CAHSEE, you apparently failed to read the linked letter in the Review where I distinguished on expectation by the number of years of instruction: “just how many years should it take to get 60 percent correct on a test geared to 10th grade material? Of English speaking students, we expect them to make that standard on a foreign language test, within three years of instruction, one class period a day. Why not the same of English learning students, taught for a full day, for three years?”

In the next few weeks, the new CUSD’s CBEDS data will be publicly available. You may find that dispositive.

In the meantime, I am curious about some of the suggestions of ‘proof’ you have made. On 19 March you suggested: “Start with the school yearbook… Look at the pictures (junior and senior)” to see if they were still there. Have you ever looked at a HMB HS yearbook? As to your suggestion of “just call each of them” – I am certain that you didn’t think that one through. And if you had ever tried to move a teenager in their Junior or Senior year you would understand why that is implausible in any great number. Oh, the “gone to Mexico” was not my suggestion but that of the Review and CUSD Superintendent John Bayless [go back to the letter and link to the Review and re-read, please].

If you look at year over year data and the only significant enrolment change occurs within the senior year that is a red flag. If that suddenly changes to the junior year (the second least likely year of a move) just before a school district must provide Statewide Student Identifiers (SSIDs) and be accountable for senior student performance—a giant flag raises!

A …is for Accountability!

Ken Johnson

Charge by the hour for child’s play?

As for those who fail to pass the CAHSEE, this school year (2005-06) is the first year in which passing the test is a graduation requirement, so it’s not relevant to any of the numbers we’ve been discussing.

As for the case for an “alarmingly high drop-out rate”, Darin is the only person on this page to use the word “alarming”. The facts are clear enough: the district loses about 20% of each high school cohort, mainly in the senior year. Those are numbers reported by the district to the state.

If you find that alarming, I wouldn’t quarrel with you. If you have an explanation for the pattern other than dropouts, I’d like to hear it. I do think that it’s a significant enough number that the district ought to have a better explanation for it than they apparently do.