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Keeping kids in school: At a glance

In recent years, states have focused much attention on student achievement, but little on how many students ultimately leave school with a diploma in hand. This is changing: Nearly every governor has pledged to develop tougher ways to measure graduation rates at the same time that the No Child Left Behind Act has begun requiring states to hold schools and districts accountable for the results.

Of course, one prerequisite for shepherding more students successfully to graduation means keeping them in school in the first place.

Fortunately, research offers important lessons for districts that decide to tackle the dropout problem head on. We now know a surprising amount about how to identify potential dropouts, and how to keep students in school and on track to graduate. Districts should pay close attention to these lessons when developing plans to raise graduation rates. Plans that are most likely to be effective are comprehensive and address the following major components:

  • Prediction: Processes for identifying students early on who are in danger of dropping out.  
  • Intervention: Programs and initiatives to help high-risk students get back on track.
  • Prevention: Ways to organize school programs that will minimize the chances a student will become at risk of dropping out.
  • Recovery: Options for keeping older students in the pipeline when intervention and prevention are not enough.

Here are the highlights of these components:

Prediction: How to identify students who are likely to drop out

  • Most students who drop out leave school because of bad experiences in school. Dropouts are twice as likely to say they left for school-related reasons as for family or personal circumstances (Berktold et al. 1998), something that holds true for all demographic subgroups (Jordan et al. 1999). To identify students at risk of dropping out, schools should look for those with weak grades in core subjects, poor attendance, and little involvement in school. These factors better predict who will drop out than such characteristics as race, poverty, gender, or family background (Neild and Balfanz 2006).
  • Districts can identify a majority of eventual dropouts—up to 85 percent—by ninth grade, and many well before that.  Researchers working in Philadelphia can identify fifty percent of eventual dropouts as early as sixth grade and an additional thirty percent by ninth grade (Neild and Balfanz 2006). Researchers in Chicago have created an "on track" indicator that predicts with eighty-five percent accuracy which ninth graders will not make it to graduation (Allensworth and Easton 2005 ). Investing in data and good prediction up front can save districts a great deal of money in the short-term and garner better results in the long run (Jerald 2006).
  • Schools need to pay close attention to the transition grades. Students who drop out often struggle making the shift from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. Even students who showed no warning signs in earlier grades can suddenly see their classroom grades or their engagement in school drop off during sixth and ninth grades, putting them seriously at risk. (Roderick 1993, Neild and Balfanz 2006, Allensworth and Easton 2005). Allensworth notes that ninth grade absences are twenty times more predictive of eventual graduation than eighth grade test scores (Education Week 2006).

Intervention: What to do for high-risk students once they're identified

  • Ongoing, comprehensive, and personalized attention from counselors can reduce dropout rates even for the most at-risk students. Rigorous experimental studies have shown that programs like Check & Connect (http://ici.umn.edu/checkandconnect/ ), that provide intensive, sustained, comprehensive, and coordinated interventions can reduce four-year high school dropout rates among highly at-risk students by one-third, and five-year rates by one-half (Sinclair et al. 1998, Sinclair et al. 2005). Programs that work use counselors as case managers who build sustained relationships with students, closely monitor each student's attendance and performance, intervene rapidly at the first sign of trouble, help students and families overcome obstacles to educational success, and teach students how to solve problems.
  • Low-intensity programs that provide occasional tutoring, counseling, or activities to boost self-esteem do almost nothing to keep students in school. In a rigorous experimental evaluation of the federal School Dropout Demonstration Assistance Program, middle school interventions that provided low-intensity supplemental services—such as tutoring, counseling, or workshops to enhance self-esteem or leadership skills—had no impact on dropout rates (Dynarski and Gleason 1998). However, students in two alternative middle schools completed more credits and were only half as likely to drop out.

Prevention: How schools can minimize risk factors

  • Better preparation in lower grades helps get students on track for high school graduation, but what they encounter in their high school makes a difference, too. K-8 reforms in Chicago during the 1990s improved reading and math achievement, which subsequently helped raise graduation rates (Roderick 2006, Allensworth 2004). However, about one in four freshmen who enter Chicago high schools with high eighth grade test scores (in the top quarter) fall off track during ninth grade, and only about one-third of those students recover to graduate on time (Allensworth and Easton 2005). 
  • Size matters. So do relationships and curriculum. Some high schools have better "holding power" than others with similar students. Students who attend high schools that have smaller enrollments; better interpersonal relationships among students and adults; teachers who are supportive of students; and a focused, rigorous, and relevant curriculum drop out at lower rates (DeLuca and Rosenbaum 2000, Croninger and Lee 2001, Lee and Burkam 2003, Plank et al. 2005). Providing more support to ninth graders via interdisciplinary teaching teams or small learning communities (often called "academies") can reduce dropout rates (Kerr and Legters 2004).
  • Some high school reform models can help students stay in school. Career Academies (http://www.ncacinc.org/ncacinc/site/default.asp)—small schools-within-schools that combine challenging academics with career and technical training—reduce four-year dropout rates by one-third (Kemple and Snipes 2000). Talent Development high schools (http://www.csos.jhu.edu/tdhs/) employ a ninth-grade Success Academy that provides intensive social support and academic support (doubling the amount of math and reading to help students get caught up). In Philadelphia, a group of neighborhood high schools replicating Talent Development have seen substantial gains in attendance, academic credits earned, and promotion rates for several cohorts of ninth graders (Kemple et al. 2005).

Recovery: What to do when intervention and prevention aren't enough

  • No set of strategies has yet proven 100 percent effective. Not all dropouts show early warning signs of being at risk. So far, researchers have been unable to reliably predict about fifteen percent to twenty percent of eventual dropouts in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia. For students who are identified, no intervention has demonstrated perfect success. Students who slip through the cracks tend to fall into two groups with different needs: Dropouts who had actually earned many of the credits they need to graduate, and teenagers who are overage for their grade level and behind in their credits.
  • Teenagers who "slip through the cracks" might benefit from "recovery" options tailored to their needs. An analysis conducted by New York City's Office of Multiple Pathways found that the city's alternative "Transfer High Schools" have a graduation rate of fifty-six percent for overage, under-credited youth, compared with a districtwide rate of nineteen percent for similar students in regular high schools (Office of Multiple Pathways 2006). However, more rigorous experimental studies of alternative high schools have yielded mixed results showing no impact for some schools and small impacts for others (Dynarski and Gleason 1998, Dynarski and Wood 1997), so more research in this area is definitely needed.

This document was written by Craig Jerald, president of Break the Curve Consulting, located in Washington, D.C. Jerald was previously a principal partner at the Education Trust, an advocacy and research organization, and a senior editor at Education Week.

Posted: March 27, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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