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New Dropout Data Highlight Problems In the Middle Years

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New dropout data from Chicago and New York City suggest that students in the middle grades may be at greater risk of leaving school than previously thought.

Both sets of data, released last week, reinforce an assumption that is growing in the research community: that those most likely to become dropouts need intervention programs long before they reach high school.

The new information also underscores, according to experts, the depth of the data-collection problem in this area--at both the high-school and the middle-school levels.

In Chicago, researchers from Loyola University found in a study of previously unreleased statistics that 5.5 percent of the district's 8th-grade students dropped out before starting high school. Because they are not legally allowed to leave school until age 16, many of these students become officially "lost" in the bureaucracy, the study found, and are never tracked.

The New York City data, meanwhile, indicate that 40 percent of students entering city high schools are more than a year behind in their studies, and that more than 30 percent have been absent 10 or more days during the previous semester. Both statistics are considered by experts to be strong indicators for potential dropouts.

"We don't know a lot about this group [middle-school students]," said Aaron M. Pallas, an assistant professor of sociology and education at Teachers' College, Columbia University, and a researcher in the field. "But the expectation is that the ones who are dropping out earlier are the ones who have experienced the worst failure in school."

'One of the Weakest Links'

The new data come as both federal and state officials are paying increasing attention to the need for more accurate dropout information.

Last month, federal education officials announced that 27 states and the District of Columbia would test, for the first time, a uniform definition of what constitutes a school dropout. Recognizing that a significant number of students may quit school before the 9th grade, participants in the pilot program have also agreed to begin monitoring their students in the 7th grade.

One of the barriers to accurately gauging the "early dropout" problem, officials say, is the fact that most formulas currently in use measure only the high-school rate. In a few districts, however, including Washington and Los Angeles, efforts have been made to look beyond the high-school years. And officials there have found that more students are abandoning school in the 7th grade than in almost any other year.

In light of this, researchers say they are hopeful that the third federally sponsored National Education Longitudinal Study, which was begun last year, will give them a better picture of the extent of the so-called "young dropout" problem. The study began with a cohort of 8th-grade students, its youngest to date. The group will be reinterviewed in 1990, when they are scheduled to be 10th-grade students.

James S. Catterall, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that many districts are dissuaded from collecting information about middle-school dropouts because funding formulas are frequently based on enrollment data, rather than attendance records.

Calling schools' record-keeping on students' transition from middle school to high school "one of the weakest links" in the dropout-prevention chain, Mr. Catterall said he does not believe that data collection will improve until state legislatures mandate change.

'Doesn't Ring True'

The Chicago study concluded that the city's school system undercounts the number of children who drop out before they reach the age of 16.

Using data provided by the district, the researchers tracked the approximately 29,600 students who completed the 8th grade in the spring of 1987. More than 1,600, or 5.5 percent, the researchers found, never entered the 9th grade.

Only 64 of these students, however, had been classified by the school system as dropouts, according to the two Loyola researchers. The rest were considered to be lost, employed, pregnant, married, at home, or unaccounted for.

By the fall of 1988, when the students being tracked were supposed to enter the 10th grade, the dropout rate for the group grew to 9.5 percent, according to the study. A disproportionate number of the dropouts, it says, came from the city's predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods.

This relatively high pre-high-school dropout rate augments a problem already documented at the high-school level. On average, district officials report, more than 40 percent of the students who enter the 9th grade fail to graduate four years later.

Moreover, the Loyola researchers question some of the district's statistics on student transfers. Nearly 2,000 of the 8th-grade students they studied--or 6.6 percent--were reported to have transfered to a non-public school within the city or to a school outside of Chicago by the beginning of the 9th grade.

But the Rev. Charles L. Kyle, the principal reseacher for the study, said he felt that the 6.6 percent figure was "inflated."

Noting that approximately 80 percent of all private-school students in Chicago attend Catholic schools, Father Kyle said that these schools' 9th-grade enrollments would have had to jump dramatically to accommodate the influx of public-school children assumed by the transfer statistics.

"It just doesn't ring true, from my experience," he said. "But there's no way of getting accurate numbers."

Attorney General's Intervention

The Loyola study was able to be completed because of an unusual alliance between the researchers and Attorney General Neil F. Hartigan of Illinois. Mr. Hartigan, in fact, wrote an introduction to the study and his office co-sponsored the report.

Father Kyle turned to Mr. Hartigan's office for help in the fall of 1987, when he was having problems getting information from the district about its younger dropouts.

"They made phone calls when phone calls had to be made," he said.

This was the researcher's second collaborative effort with the Attorney General. In 1986, Mr. Hartigan's office had also co-sponsored a study about the district's high-school dropout rate.

Robert Saigh, a spokesman for the Chicago Public Schools, said last week that he could not comment on the new study because school officials had not yet received a copy.

The district has no plans, he said, to alter its data-collection system for dropouts.

Mr. Saigh added that the district has a dropout-prevention program aimed at middle-school students. But it, like similar programs, he said, remains underfunded.

'A Systemic Problem'

In New York City, information about that city's incoming freshman class was compiled by the district in response to a request by The New York Times.

In addition to its information on age and previous absence rates, the profile indicated that many 9th graders in the city have serious academic difficulties, as shown by their performance on standardized tests.

Robert Tobias, director of the board of education's office of research, evaluation, and assessment, said that the data suggest there is "a systemic problem, not just a middle-school problem."

The school system's annual report on dropouts, also issued last week, confirms that efforts to reduce the dropout rate must be intensified. It shows that slightly more than 40 percent of the 9th-grade students in 1984 graduated by 1988; 20.8 percent had dropped out and 25.3 percent were still considered to be enrolled.

According to the report, 40 percent of the class of 1988 were overage when they entered the 9th grade, and 71 percent of the dropouts were overage.

These figures, along with similar statistics from other urban school districts, have convinced many that mounting greater dropout-prevention efforts at earlier grade levels has become an essential.

"The high schools have been the center of most dropout-prevention interest," said Mr. Pallas of Teachers' College. "A more sensible approach would be to start earlier."

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