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Dropout rates and standards
Thomas Toch

This story was published online as part of a special report by Washington Monthly magazine that was guest edited by Richard Lee Colvin, editor of The Hechinger Report.

President Obama and the U.S. Congress could raise the public high school graduation rate to 100 percent by fiat. All they’d need do is require that, as a condition for receiving federal aid, school districts had to give diplomas to all eighteen-year-olds, regardless of whether they had shown up for classes or learned anything. Conversely, in a quest for higher standards, policymakers could make graduating from high school so difficult that only future Nobel Prize winners would ever walk across the stage, capped and gowned.

Put in those extreme terms, the tension between high standards and high graduation rates is obvious: there’s a trade-off, wherein the higher the standards, the lower the graduation rate. How true that is in reality is harder to say. For all the talk in recent years of higher standards, students in most public high schools are still held to, at best, middling standards. There’s plenty of reason to think that, given more effective and engaging schools and teachers, American students would be perfectly capable of meeting higher standards and graduating in greater numbers. But the difficulty of making that a reality is daunting, even while the imperative that we try is unavoidable.

More on dropouts

The Hechinger Report partnered with Washington Monthly to take an in-depth look at the dropout problem and how three cities have tackled the issue.

What can we do about the dropout problem?

New York: Big gains in the Big Apple

Philadelphia: After decades of effort, a decade of progress

Portland: All the advantages, nothing to show for it

The Bronx: Small school, big results

Small schools are still beautiful

Today, a high school diploma is an absolute necessity yet, by itself, is insufficient for ensuring a middle-class life. President Obama and many governors, leading foundations, and business leaders all espouse the goal of graduating students who are “career and college ready” so they can go on to further their education or training. To the administration, this means that students will leave high school ready to succeed without having to take remedial classes.

But our public schools are very far from being able to meet that expectation. Only between 70 and 75 percent of students who enter high school graduate, and, of those who do, less than half of them are college ready. Forty percent of community college freshmen and 20 percent of students entering four-year colleges have to take remedial classes. So, if states were to impose the administration’s standard for what a diploma should mean today, the dropout rate would soar to politically untenable heights.

In fact, the likelihood of this occurring has undermined many previous efforts to raise standards. In the 1970s and ’80s, states began to require students to pass basic tests of reading, writing, and mathematics to graduate. The tests were so elementary that few students failed them, and, anyway, the results did not always affect graduation rates. In the 1990s, urged along by the federal government, states created standards for what students should know and be able to do. That led to a new era of more demanding graduation tests aligned with those standards.

But as the Center on Education Policy reported earlier this year, many of the twenty-four states that now require passage of exit exams are struggling with the fundamental tension between high standards and healthy graduation rates. Typically, the exams test eighth-grade math concepts and tenth-grade language arts skills. Nineteen of the states grant waivers to students who cannot pass the test and allow them to show they are diploma worthy in other ways.

In New Jersey, for example, it was reported that 4,500 seniors were in danger of not graduating because they had failed not only the state’s exam but also an easier, alternative test. Education Commissioner Bret Schundler told legislators that those students still had a number of other ways they could qualify to graduate. They could submit class work, complete an online credit recovery remediation class, and retake the test; show decent results on another test; or take another shot at some of the questions they’d missed—all of those could gain them a diploma.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania began implementing a law that was supposed to put in place the standard for career and college readiness. But, fearing that too many students won’t pass, the test will be phased in over five years, school districts will be allowed to substitute other tests, and those students who fail repeatedly will be given other alternatives. John Robert Warren, a University of Minnesota sociologist and one of the nation’s leading experts on testing and high school graduation, told the New York Times that the “real pattern in states has been that the standards are lowered so much that the exams end up not benefiting the students who pass them while still hurting the students who failed them.”

Even as states are being pressured to raise their expectations, they’re also expected to increase graduation rates. By next year, states will be required by the federal government to use a method of calculating their dropout rates that many expect will cause the numbers to spike. That will give states and school districts further reason to find ways to graduate students who may not have met the official requirements.

There are examples of school districts and states that have tried to get tough. But without a plan to help struggling students, the consequences of enforcing higher standards are discouraging. In 1997, for example, Chicago school officials decided to eliminate remedial classes for entering ninth graders and require them to enroll only in college-prep classes. The idea was that a high bar would encourage students to work harder.

Researchers at the University of Chicago–based Consortium on Chicago School Research, including Elaine Allensworth and John Easton, now director of the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences, tracked the progress of 25,000 freshmen who entered high school in 2004. In a 2007 report, What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools, and another released recently, they concluded that the higher standards produced no improvement in test scores or college matriculation and caused the citywide graduation rate to fall by 4 percentage points. African American and Latino boys, who had previously been disproportionately assigned to the low-level classes, continued to struggle. The researchers reported that only 39 percent of the African Americans and 51 percent the Latinos earned diplomas. Worse, Allensworth, Easton, and their colleagues found that teachers dumbed down instruction for more advanced students when slower-moving students joined their classes.

Easton and Allensworth were among the researchers who identified the factors that seem to accurately predict which students will drop out of school. That information has enabled school districts, states, and even commercial enterprises to create early-warning systems to identify those students. If they get to struggling students early, schools can assign them tutors and mentors and closely monitor their attendances and grades. Researchers also point to another key to staving off higher dropout rates: creating a culture of high expectations in lagging high schools. When teachers and students believe in the importance of high standards and share a commitment to reaching them, much can be accomplished.


This special report was made possible with the generous support of (in alphabetical order):

The Boston Foundation

Carnegie Corporation of New York

Nellie Mae Education Foundation

Spencer Foundation

William Penn Foundation

But that commitment to high standards is rare and has to be consciously created. Apathy and alienation are more common in large schools of 3,000 or more students, which have few counselors or other adults to get kids engaged. Classrooms in such schools often suffer from what the late progressive school reformer Ted Sizer famously labeled a “conspiracy of the least,” an unspoken pact between students and teachers to not demand very much of each other. External edicts, including No Child Left Behind–style accountability, aren’t enough to counter this disaffection. “Students fail mainly because they are not engaging, they aren’t doing the work,” says Allensworth. “Changing standards doesn’t make them come to class more or do their homework.”

Easton says he thinks public schools “have gotten a little better about engaging students and getting them through.” Now, he said, “we have to start thinking about how we make sure that along the way they are really learning something of value.”

We now have evidence that it’s possible to do both. When higher standards are combined with committed teachers, stronger school cultures, engaged students, and strategic responses to failing students, the result is New York rather than Chicago. The New York City school system in recent years has replaced nearly three dozen massive high schools with over 200 smaller, more personalized places, introduced early-warning systems to identify struggling students needing extra help, and brought in intensive catch-up courses in core subjects. The result has been that more students are passing the demanding New York State Regents exam and the city’s graduation rate increased from 47 percent in 2005 to 59 percent in 2009, excluding GED diplomas. This may still be troublingly low, but at least it’s an improvement.

Thomas Toch is the executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington and the author of High Schools on a Human Scale. This piece reflects his personal perspectives.

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  1. Talking about high standards and NYC high school graduation rates in the same breath is tough to do; here we have a system where high school teachers grade the Regents (exit) exams of their own students, principals are allowed to change their scores, in case they are too low, and high schools are encouraged to give away course credit like candy — not even requiring that students attend classes to graduate. Be careful before you wish the NYC model for the rest of the nation.

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