Graduation Rates: Why Do Kids Drop Out of School? Fail Courses? Fail Regents? How Can We Increase Graduation Rates Without Ruses?

With fanfare and some backslapping the New York State Education Department released graduation data for the 2011 cohort – students entering the ninth grade in the 2011-2012 school year.

The overall graduation rate for the 2011 cohort increased to 78.1 percent, up 1.7 percentage points from 76.4 percent for the 2010 cohort.

Once a student registers in a school, usually that means moving from the eighth to the ninth grade, the student “belongs” to the high school. The student remains in the cohort until they graduate, move on to another school or dropout.  The SED presser reports that seven percent of the cohort has dropped out and “… of those who dropped out, 62 percent were Black or Hispanic; 64 percent came from economically disadvantaged homes; and 58 percent were male.” Fifteen percent of the students neither graduated nor dropped out, they either failed to pass the requisite courses, failed to pass five regents exams (with the safety net, if eligible) or a combination of both and are currently in their fifth year of high school (or, failed to report to school this year).

Graduation rates can be increased by better data management that has nothing to do with the school instructional program. For a number of years I worked on a team that assisted new, small high schools, and succeeded in increasing graduation rates. Who were the “long term absences” and where did they go?  Were they enrolled in another school and not removed from the previous school register?  Has the school attempted to track down the student?  Form letters and phone calls do not suffice: a counselor, social worker or attendance teacher also has to become a detective. If the student moved back to South Carolina in what school is the student enrolled – can we ask the South Carolina school for an enrollment document? Does school personnel have the language skills to communicate with family and friends? How many of the dropouts are English language learners, how many Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) are in the dropout cohort?  Does school staff have the computer skills to search databases?  Unfortunately low functioning schools are low functioning in multiple domains: high failure rates, low attendance, and high suspension rates and poor data management. The SED should provide a guide to tracking down dropouts – turning “bad” discharges to “good” discharges.

It’s crucial to disaggregate the remaining fifteen percent – the students who neither graduate in four years nor dropped out: Who are they?

* English language learners

Let’s disaggregate the ELLs, “Ever” Ls, students who been Ls for many years, are the NYSSLAT scores increasing?  Is the student making progress towards graduating in a fifth or sixth year of high school?

Is the L student overage?  Poor attendance?  Is it likely that without proper guidance and support the student will dropout?

Does the student have a path to graduation?  Making progress both in passing courses and passing regents?

* Special Education

How many students are in Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms and how many students in self-contained classrooms? Is there a difference in course and regents passing rates?  And, a core question: how many special education students pass courses and fail regents exams and which regents exam is the most common failure?

Black, Hispanic and Disadvantaged

Are there common denominators?  High absence rates? High suspension rates? Overage?  Are there specific courses and regents exams that are more commonly failed?

If the data is useful, if we expect schools to utilize data schools must adopt a culture, a culture that respects the use of data to drive the construction of school polices. New Visions for Public Schools described the process in an excellent report:  Navigating the Data Ecosystem: A Case Study of the Adoption of a School Data Management System in New York City.

Culture drives practice. A school can promote a culture of inquiry only if there are systems in place to support regular analysis of student data …  teachers have cited the lack of time for data analysis as a major barrier to using data systems, and in some cases they reported feeling they must choose between data-driven work and their teaching. Effective data use within the context of inquiry requires that time be made available to teacher teams specifically for this activity …  schools should make this structured collaborative time a priority, ideally happening a few times each week, depending on individual school needs.

Why haven’t more schools adopted cultures that promote inquiry that promotes “structured collaborative time?”  Eric Nadelstern, in the January 13, 2016 Hechinger Report  suggests,

Devolve responsibility, resources and authority to schools. Centralizing decision making simply lets principals and teachers off the hook for student performance.

Our goal is to create schools with the ability take responsibility; however, Nadelstern’s answer, endlessly close and create new schools is a chaotic solution and chaos is not what students and teachers need.

The commissioner proposes a number of options that are patches,

Department proposed to the Board new options that would provide students with additional opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge and skills in order to earn a diploma. These proposals include widening the score range for any students who wish to appeal their Regents Exam result; establishing a graduation pathway in Career Development and Occupational Studies (CDOS); and the creation of a project-based assessment for students who pass coursework required for a diploma but who have not passed required Regents Exams. These new options are intended to give all students—especially those with disabilities, English language learners (ELL), and students at risk of dropping out—additional ways of earning a diploma while continuing to measure them against the State’s rigorous standards.

Only about 50 percent of students with disabilities in the 2011 cohort graduated within four years. Graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students continue to lag behind those of their White peers. In the 2011 cohort, about 88 percent of White students graduated in June 2015, but only 65 percent of Black and Hispanic students did.

Will these proposals raise graduation rates and will they also recreate a tracking system?

Twenty years ago the Regents, after years of discussion, began the phase-out of the Regent Competency Test (RCT) driven local diploma. The RCT was a low level test – about ninth grade level, that was a common pathway to graduation.  I taught in a New York City high school with an excellent reputation, and, only about 25% of the senior cohort earned a regents diploma. In high poverty schools regent diplomas were rare. Will the commissioner’s proposal return us to the tracking of twenty years ago?

The new reauthorized law, ESSA, allows states to seek waivers, and, New Hampshire is in year two of a waiver that is exploring performance tasks in lieu of standardized tests.  New York State should begin exploring their own waiver; there are forty high schools that have had an approved waiver  for twenty years, utilizing a student portfolio-roundtable system in lieu of regents exams.

The time is ripe for the Regents and the State Education Department to begin a process – how can we assess pupil performance without the burden of rigid standardized tests.

2 responses to “Graduation Rates: Why Do Kids Drop Out of School? Fail Courses? Fail Regents? How Can We Increase Graduation Rates Without Ruses?

  1. This comment was also posted to the Nadelstern op-ed which was cited above.
    You once again blame the system when you know that even in NYS, NYC is underfunded in comparison to other systems.
    The ‘improvement’ of which you boast is false and a lie. Any system independent of political control that has looked at the NYC High School graduates has found them LESS qualified for college than before. Thus the administration which you were at the top of pushed kids unqualified or marginally qualified for graduation out into the workforce or into college.

    Those that went to college often have a very poor record due to your efforts to polish the reputation of the system (of which you boast above) rather that making sure that they were truly college ready. Many dropouts have thousands of dollars in college loans that must be repaid due to their failure in college and poor high school preparation.
    Instead of assuring that every graduate got a great NYC education, you were interested only in increasing the numbers of graduates.

    Starting small schools with unproven staff and incompetent principals and gerrymandering the better students into those schools at the expense of the bigger schools, starving the bigger schools of fiscal resources, removing the authority of Principals to suspend and transfer disruptive students from the mainstream, denigrating the schools which did not reduce suspensions, and other actions were your plays.

    Not dealing with the problems that poor kids bring in to school by increasing support resources, not recognizing that kids were being promoted from grade schools without adequate preparation for high school, and pushing schemes like ‘credit recovery’ to award students a class credit for cutting all year and writing a ‘report’ in June, were the tools of your administration.

    Some of these adults who were denied an adequate education under your regime should sue to recover damages.
    You should be ashamed to regard your tenure as a success. The independent evaluations resound with FAILURE!


  2. Peter:

    Just ask Eric Nadelstern? He has all the answers and if implemented, would have a 100% graduation rate. Of course Eric had his chance and failed miserably. The CFN’s, Leadership Academy principals”, and the small schools that are failing in droves once the schools were forced to survive on the school budgets that other schools received and couldn’t exclude “high needs” students.

    I totally agree with David-S..


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