One in five California students drop out of high school, according to 2007-08 data released Tuesday by the State Department of Education.

The estimate — down 1 percentage point from last year — is based on a relatively new system that tracks California's 6 million-plus students. Just more than 68 percent graduated last year, up less than 1 percentage point from the 2006-07 school year. About 12 percent of teens fall into neither the graduation nor dropout categories for various reasons, including opting to take a GED test or taking more than four years to graduate.

"I am heartened that the graduation rate is up slightly, but California's dropout rate is still unacceptably high," state schools chief Jack O'Connell said. "But if we look deeper into the data, we see alarmingly high dropout rates among African-American and Hispanic students."

Statewide, more than one in three African-American students — 34.7 percent — don't finish high school, and 25.5 percent of Hispanic students quit. The rate for white students hovers at 12.2 percent, and an estimated 8.4 percent of Asian students drop out.

The state report came on the same day that the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on what the "national dropout crisis." About 7,000 students nationwide quit school every day, witnesses told the panel.


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"The crisis we're seeing in our nation's high schools is real, it's urgent, and it must be fixed," said U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, chairman of the committee.

In Contra Costa and Alameda counties, the overall rate was slightly better than at the state level: Just more than 16 percent of teens did not finish school in Contra Costa, and just more than 17 percent quit in Alameda. Almost 31 percent of Contra Costa County's African-American students dropped out, and 23.8 percent of Hispanics don't finish school. White students drop out at an estimated rate of 10.1 percent, and 8.5 percent of Asian students do not finish.

More than 35 percent of Alameda's African-Americans dropped out, and about one in four Hispanics didn't finish. The rate for white students was 8 percent, and 6.7 percent of Asian teens dropped out.

Several school districts are still grappling with the state's system for tabulating the rates, which requires them to better track students. The West Contra Costa school district decreased dropout levels by almost 14 percentage points — from 35.1 in 2006-07 to 21.4 last year — one of the biggest improvements of all Bay Area school districts.

Associate Superintendent Wendell Greer attributed the improvement to staff's efforts in following up on students' whereabouts and reaching out to at-risk teens.

"Adults are making the difference and making sure our kids are staying in school," Greer said.

West Contra also saw significant decreases in dropout levels for various ethnic groups. In 2006-07, 41.5 percent of African-American students dropped out, but last year that figure fell to 29.1 percent. Similar patterns follow for the district's Latino students: In 2006-07, the rate was 39.4 percent. Last year it fell to 22.3 percent.

Other Bay Area districts saw improvements as well: Oakland's rate fell 7.5 percentage points; Martinez saw an almost 9 percentage point drop, and Antioch had a 3.7 percentage point drop. Other districts, such as Alameda city, Mt. Diablo and Pittsburg, increased slightly.

The state began tracking students through identification numbers last year to determine whether students were transferring to other schools or moving out of state. Districts have until July 3 to analyze the data and submit corrections.

Sen. Gloria Romero, chairwoman of the state's Senate Committee on Education, on Tuesday called for a comprehensive change in schools.

"We need to completely transform how we engage students to stay in school and to excel," Romero said.

Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or kwetzel@bayareanewsgroup.com.

2007-08 four-year estimated drop out rates for select Bay Area school districts:
Contra Costa: 16.2%
Acalanes Union High: 3.7%
Antioch: 26.2%
Martinez: 6%
Mt. Diablo: 23.6%
Pittsburg: 26.5%
San Ramon Valley: 3.1%
West Contra Costa: 21.4%
Alameda County: 17.2%
Alameda Unified: 15%
Berkeley: 14.2%
Fremont: 5.8%
Hayward: 17.2%
Livermore Valley: 7.1%
Pleasanton: 2%
San Leandro: 16.2%
San Mateo: 12.7%
San Mateo Union: 5.7%
To view or download state, county, district, and school-level dropout data, go to: http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/.