Just as schools across the country are preparing for a new school year, two new studies came out last week that provide insight into the persistent graduation crisis in the United States. The first is a study from the U.S. Department of Education that finds that graduation rates have declined for three years in a row. The graduation rate for the 2005-06 school year was 73.4 percent, a drop from the 2004-05 rate of 74.7 percent and the 2003-04 rate of 75 percent. These drops may be small, but they clearly highlight the lack of progress we are making in improving our unacceptably low graduation rates.
Why do these rates matter? Students who fail to graduate from high school earn less money and have fewer job opportunities. Moreover, in today’s knowledge-based economy, a high school degree is no longer sufficient to compete for high-skilled jobs. High school dropouts today face an even greater challenge in earning a decent living than they did 30 years ago.
The second study sheds some light on why our graduation rates are failing to budge. Researchers at WestEd followed 3,856 freshmen in the San Bernardino City Unified School District through high school graduation and tracked the experiences of those who dropped out before graduation. Thirty-five percent of students in the district dropped out at least once during their high school careers, mirroring national trends, and the majority left during their first year of high school. The critical freshman year transition has been well documented by other research, where studies have indicated that students are much less likely to graduate if they are not on track by the end of their freshman year.
What the WestEd study finds is that for about a third (31 percent) of these dropouts, dropping out of school is a “temporary interruption rather than a permanent high school outcome.” In the San Bernardino school district, students re-enrolled in high school because they had difficulty finding employment without a high school degree, but also because principals, teachers, and other education staff helped to pull them back into the classroom. Only about 18.4 percent of these students ended up graduating in five years, but the fact that this school district was able to recover a third of their dropouts shows that active, school-level dropout recovery strategies should be a critical element of any comprehensive approach to increasing graduation rates.
Yet what happened to those students who re-enrolled, but failed to graduate? More than half of those who re-enrolled only enrolled for one year or less. In interviews about why they dropped out a second or third time, these students cited family responsibilities and feelings of hopelessness about being able to make up sufficient course credits to graduate in a reasonable period of time.
Interestingly, ninth-grade dropouts were more likely to re-enroll, as were black students and female students. English-language learners, Latinos, and male students, who dropped out at higher rates in the study, and like African Americans tend to be most at risk of dropping out in general, were less likely to re-enroll, indicating perhaps that the barriers to re-enrollment may differ for these groups of students.
These data point to at least three guiding strategies for dropout prevention and recovery:
1. Districts and schools need to focus on freshman year as a critical transition point. Students who struggle academically or socially, or have frequent absences or behavior problems at any time during their freshman year, should receive immediate academic and social support. This support could take the form of afterschool tutoring, counseling, and remedial coursework. Students who are on track by the end of freshman year are much more likely to graduate.
2. Students who are failing academically are much more likely to drop out and need academic support. One of the primary reasons students drop out of school is because of academic failure. Districts and schools need to design systems that quickly identify those students who are struggling and provide them with additional help, which may include additional course work or tutoring.
3. Dropouts need flexible and engaging schooling options that allow them to recover credits relatively quickly. If, as the WestEd report illustrates, dropping out is not necessarily a permanent condition, states and districts need to rethink their dropout recovery strategies to employ a series of flexible interventions that meet the particular needs of students who have left school. Students need a number of potential ways to re-enroll in school, depending on their circumstances. These flexible options might include night classes, summer school, or online courses. Students need to feel that earning sufficient credits toward graduation is a manageable task.
Federal policy can support these strategies. It should invest in research and development to identify promising school models and strategies for recovering dropouts. The Graduation Promise Act, introduced in both the Senate and the House, and incorporated into early drafts reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, provides $2.4 billion for states to intervene in struggling high schools and develop research-based models to turn them around. This research could support the development of school reform models to support effective dropout recovery efforts.
Federal policy should also support states and districts in developing alternative pathways for students who have dropped out of school. One promising school reform model worthy of federal support is the early college high school—a blended institution that combines high school and college curricula and credits, allowing students to graduate in more than four years if they need the additional time, but simultaneously allowing them to earn college credits. These schools are motivating to students, since graduation means not only a high school diploma, but some progress toward a college degree, as well. A similar model that allows students who have dropped out to complete their high school diploma while they are earning a college degree at a community college has been included in the renewal of the Higher Education Act. The reauthorization of ESEA is an opportunity to broaden such efforts.
As these reports demonstrate, accurate graduation rate data are essential for helping states and districts design effective programs that help more students graduate. If states and districts don’t know who is dropping out and when, they won’t be able to design effective interventions. U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has already initiated important steps to improve the data on graduation rates by proposing a common definition and disaggregation by race, ethnicity, and other major characteristics. Graduation rates, like progress on academic achievement standards, are an important element of a school’s success and should be considered when evaluating schools’ overall progress for accountability.
Our national graduation rates may have stagnated, but we now have more information than ever to design policies to counter this trend. Federal policy should support states and districts in ensuring that students transition successfully into high school, providing additional academic help to struggling students and alternative schooling options to students who have dropped out of school.