“Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing”

CitationNational Research Council. (2001). Understanding dropouts: Statistics, strategies, and high-stakes testing. Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity. Beatty, A., Neisser, U., Trent, W.T., Heubert, J.P. (Eds.) Board on Testing and Assessment, Center for Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Photo on 2009-09-12 at 22.32This 2001 report put out by the National Research Council is the most recent collection of data connecting high-stakes testing with high school dropout in America. The study makes five key recommendations for better, more systematic data collection documenting the links between high-stakes graduation testing and high school completion. Those five recommendations are at the bottom of this posts. Preceding these recommendations are the study’s findings on trends among dropouts and the high-stakes tests necessary to graduate from high school.

In terms of answering the question of WHY kids dropout, the study found:

  • There is no one reason for dropping out but rather a group of common factors that often work in concert over time to impact a student’s decision to dropout of school
  • School-related factors include: number of students in a school who are low-achieving, number of less experienced and/or less qualified teachers, lack of access to small group settings with individualized attention;
  • Home/life factors include: single family home, large family home, teen parent, family income in lowest 20% of population, being Latino or African-American;
  • Dropping out of school is a gradual process of disengaging from school over many years and is affected by multiple contributing factors like those listed above.

There are patterns that allow schools to identify students in danger of dropping out but interventions after 9th grade have not proven to be effective. Interventions targeted at students in late elementary and middle school have been shown to be more effective. Early indicators are:

  • absences
  • poor grades
  • poor achievement on tests
  • retention
  • schools with limited resources, and a climate that does not engage students

Research shows that grade retention only hurts students’ chances of graduating on-time:

Given the difficulty and cost of preventing students from dropping out once the process of disengagement from school has begun, it is clear that neither requiring a student a retake the grade nor a promoting a failing student, by itself, a sufficient response to his or her academic difficulty. The value and importance of addressing struggling students’ difficulties directly and specifically as soon as they are apparent are paramount. Moreover, the strong association between retention in grade and dropping out suggests that retention is usually not a beneficial intervention (7).

Do alternative programs and certificates give more students access to a basic high school education?

Alternative programs and certifications have been developed in response to the reality that secondary students’ needs, goals, strengths, and weaknesses differ, and we recognize that these alternatives can offer valuable options for many students. However, the alternatives and their effects on students’ lives need to be better understood… Entering adulthood without a diploma or with a lesser alternative to one is associated with serious economic and other consequences that can be discerned throughout life (23-27).

How are dropouts counted?

  • Event dropout rate = the # of students in a particular category who were enrolled but left school without completing the requirements within a specific period of time;
  • Status dropout rate = % of young people of age to be enrolled in or have completed school but are not attending or have not received a diploma;
  • High school completion rate = proportion of students in a certain age category who have received a diploma or other credential (GED)
  • On-time graduation rate = students who graduate in a given year and were enrolled in 9th grade three years earlier
  • Attrition rate = students who were enrolled in an earlier grade, usually 9th, and are no longer enrolled by 12th grade

The variety of measures for dropout rates causes confusion and miscounting of dropouts across states and jurisdictions.

What data sources are used for measuring dropouts?

  • National-level data comes from the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Educational Statistics.

What about students who are “pushed out”?

Many others have identified categories of students who leave school not entirely of their own volition. Such students, often called ‘pushouts,’ include students who have presented significant discipline problems, students who have been reassigned to special education programs (in some cases because thy are discipline problems rather than because of a diagnosed disability), and students who are discouraged from continuing in school by formal policies or informal practices. The relative dearth of data on these students is another piece of the puzzle observers face when they try to understand the problem of dropouts (34).

In theory, the standards-based reform movement is aimed to help the students most in danger of failure:

By making expectations for all students explicit, reforms have helped many jurisdictions understand the educational needs of the range of students they serve. Well constructed and properly used programs, can assist policy makers, administrators, and teachers in ensuring that all students are offered what they need to meet established goals and to make needed improvements in teaching, curricula, and other program elements (38).

Why standards-based reform does not necessarily translate into practice:

Ensuring that curricula are aligned with standards and tests, ensuring that students have been taught the material and skills for which they are being held responsible, ensuring that needed resources are in place, modifying teaching strategies, and the like can all present challenges much larger than those that come with instituting new testing requirements” (38-39).

Hence, adopting the tests that are aligned with standards is much easier than actually ensuring that each school is poised to actually able to provide the instruction to get students prepared to take the tests. Implementing testing procedures is much more expedient than the difficult work of equipping teachers and schools to meet the challenge of providing rigorous, excellent instruction in all subject areas. Due to conditions on the ground, tests may not even be valid or reliable, but students in many cases are the ones held accountable for low scores:

Test results may penalize students who are the victims of ill-prepared teachers, poorly run schools or districts, or other circumstances beyond their control (40).

The role of grade retention and student success:

Grade retention is pervasive in American schools, and it is more common among black and Hispanic youngsters than among whites. The report also documents the considerable evidence that students who are retained  in grade (even as early as elementary school) preform less well in school (even when results are controlled for age and number of grades completed) and are significantly more likely to drop out of school… Among 15- to 17-year-olds, about 50 percent of black males and 30 percent of white females are at least one grade behind most students their age. Hauser further shows that students who are retained in any grade are significantly more likely to drop out of school than those who are not, even when factors such as sex, race and ethnicity, social background, cognitive ability, and other factors are controlled (43-44).

How will graduation exit exams affect students’ decisions to dropout?

The likelihood is that eh effects of these tests will vary significantly, depending on the ways in which they are constructed and implemented and on the ways in which their results are used. However, there is reason to believe that both exit testing and other high-stakes testing may sometimes be used in way that have unintended harmful effects on students at risk for academic failure because of poverty, lack of proficiency in English, disability, and membership in population subgroups that have been educationally disadvantaged (45).

Hence, despite the efforts of nation-wide movements to standardized instruction through high-stakes testing (think NCLB), the data on the effects (positive or negative) of these tests on improving student outcomes is variable and inconclusive. Many educators are skeptical that the existing accountability schemes are having the intended effect of improving student access to high quality curriculum and instruction, and as a result, it is doubtful that test scores will raise for those populations who have historically had the most limited access to successful schools and teachers.

In the end the data is just not available to really understand the roles that high-statkes testing plays in students’ decision to dropout. This study makes the following recommendations for collecting data:

Data Recommendations

#1: We need to look at key existing data that is desegregated to show statistics for different populations of minority subgroups, ELLs, and students with disabilities; data should include the number of students receiving GEDs or credentials different from standard graduation, the nature of the academic credentials that lead to alternative certificates, the process for allowing students to receive alternative credentials, and the later educational and employment outcomes for students with alternative credentials.

#2 The current data collection practices for alternative programs is insufficient. Schools and districts need to collect data on all types of alternative graduation certification, the knowledge and skills required by these certifications. Further, school completion data for schools and districts should desegregate data of those student who leave with GEDs rather than standard high school diplomas, and this data should be desegregated by race, ELL, and Special Education.

#3 There is an urgent need to collect data on sub populations (race, ELL, SPED) that allows valid comparisons across states and smaller jurisdictions with regard to standard and alternative graduation rates. There needs to be longitudinal data that tracks the increasingly diverse pathways for high school graduation, and that tracks where students go after meeting alternative standards for graduation. Finally, schools and districts should improve their data tracking of students in danger of dropping out during middle school.

#4 The U.S. DOE should take a leadership role in providing oversight of collecting this data on high school completion; they should work closely with the U.S. Department of Labor to track these students.

#5 Jurisdictions with exit exams required for graduation should collect data on students who fail exit exams  in the 12th grade, tracking what happens to them after high school. That data should be desegregated by race, ELL, and SPED status.

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