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QUANTICO, Va. — Stephen Call, who graduated this month from Quantico Middle/High School on the U.S. Marine Corps base in Virginia, had a decision to make last December. His mother, a master sergeant specializing in communications, received orders to move to Miramar, California. If he went with her, Call would have to change schools for the sixth time in 12 years.
Quantico’s small campus, which is part of the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) school system, offered Call a wealth of opportunities that not only burnished his college applications but were also preparing him to thrive once he got there: He was commanding officer of the school’s JROTC unit and president of the Model United Nations club, and earned a spot in the National Honor Society.
“I’ve moved around a lot,” Call says. “I wanted to try staying in one spot.” His mother agreed to let him move in with the family of a close friend and finish out his senior year on his own.
Being uprooted is part of the deal for military families, whose children move an average of six times between kindergarten and high school. DoDEA (pronounced “doe-dee-ah”) is in the midst of a massive overhaul of its academic programs, a shift its leaders hope will both raise standards for students and ease some of the academic upheaval that can come with frequently changing schools. And, like many traditional public school districts across the country, DoDEA is asking itself a tough question: How do we know if our students are actually being prepared for college and careers?
Thus far, DoDEA hasn’t been able to collect much data on its students’ long-term outcomes beyond asking high school seniors to share their plans for life after graduation.
That’s starting to change.
DoDEA has begun tracking how many of its high school graduates enroll in two- and four-year colleges, whether they stick with school and if they graduate. DoDEA expects to make the findings public once they have two years’ worth of data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that partners with thousands of schools and colleges nationwide to collect and share data.
“In the past we’ve had to rely on our students to tell us where they’re going,” says Sandra Embler, DoDEA’s chief of research and evaluation. “This will give us actual data we can use to figure out how to better help our kids prepare for success in life beyond high school.”
Nearly 1.2 million school-aged children have a parent serving as an active-duty member of the U.S. armed forces, according to the Military Child Education Coalition. Quantico is one of 181 schools operated by DoDEA, spread out over 12 countries, seven U.S. states and the territories of Guam and Puerto Rico. DoDEA educates more than 78,000 children; 14,000 are high school students. In the continental United States, Quantico Middle/High School is one of four high schools serving about 3,000 students in total. The other three include two high schools in Kentucky and one in North Carolina.
Call, who is headed to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to study aerospace engineering, says he’s glad that there will be a formal record of his progress beyond graduation.
“People have misconceptions about what we’re really doing and how our lives turned out,” Call said during an on-campus interview. “Instead of just speculating, they’ll really know about us and how prepared we were for our futures.”
Following the lead of more than 40 states, DoDEA signed on to the Common Core standards in early 2012. Re-branded as DoDEA’s “College and Career Ready Standards,” the new, tougher grade-level expectations are being phased in, beginning with mathematics in the 2015-16 academic year. English language arts will follow in the fall of 2016.
In addition to raising the academic bar, administrators hope that adopting the standards will make it easier to address some practical realities. As military families move, the children often switch between public and DoDEA schools. Making DoDEA’s grade-level expectations consistent with those in the states that have Common Core will lead to greater consistency for students, the system’s leaders said.
By the numbers
The closest thing the U.S. has to a federal school system, DoDEA benefits from having small campuses (Quantico Middle/High School has about 300 students in grades 6-12), smaller-than-average class sizes and a highly qualified teacher workforce. Teachers and administrators don’t have to worry as much about student test scores as their public school counterparts do, because DoDEA is exempt from No Child Left Behind. (DoDEA voluntarily complies with the bulk of the law’s provisions, however, according to its leadership.)
That being said, DoDEA students have a strong record of academic performance, particularly on standardized tests such as college entrance exams and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Additionally, at DoDEA’s diverse campuses, low-income students and students of color typically score higher on standardized tests than their comparable peers at traditional public schools.
But despite those encouraging indicators, DoDEA has been struggling to figure out how to measure outcomes for their graduates and demonstrate that the “college and career ready” threshold has been met. That’s a familiar problem these days for public school districts.
Dewayne Matthews, vice president of strategy development at the Lumina Foundation, an independent foundation focused on increasing the proportion of Americans with postsecondary credentials (and among the various funders of The Hechinger Report), said that DoDEA’s desire to do a better job tracking its students beyond graduation speaks volumes. “If you want to know what’s important to people, look at the data they’re seeking,” he says. “That’s often a better measure of their priorities than just looking at the programs that are getting the most money.”
The nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse said it currently partners with about 35 percent of the nation’s public high schools to provide postsecondary data on graduates. The reported data includes whether students enroll in college, if they return after their freshman year and if they complete a degree within six years of starting.
Roberta Hyland, the clearinghouse’s managing director of research operations and international development, says her organization has seen steady growth since its postsecondary reporting service was first offered in 2009, reflecting a shift in the national conversation around college and career readiness.
“The question used to be, ‘Did they graduate high school?’” Hyland says. “Then it expanded to access, and whether students were eligible to enroll. Now we’re asking, ‘Do they actually attend a postsecondary program, stick with it and graduate?’”
No information is released about individual students without their consent, Hyland adds, emphasizing that protecting privacy is a key consideration for the clearinghouse.
At the same time that DoDEA is expanding data collection on its graduates, there is strong bipartisan support for an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that would require states and school districts to report the academic achievements of children from military families. (Such reporting is already required for other subgroups, including minority, special education and low-income students.)
In a 2011 report, the Government Accountability Office noted, “There are no national public data on military dependent students’ academic progress, attendance, or long-term outcomes, such as college attendance or workplace readiness.”
Without such metrics, the GAO report detailed, “educators, base commanders, and community leaders are not able to provide military dependent students with appropriate resources because they do not have information on their specific educational needs or the effectiveness of the schools and programs serving them.”
The data could also be useful in tracking federal Impact Aid funding awarded to school districts serving large numbers of children from military families.
Seventeen states have already passed similar legislation, but definitions of what constitutes a child connected to the military vary widely. Consistency will be necessary for the data to be valid and useful, concluded the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which endorsed the creation of a military student identifier in its January 2015 report to Congress.
The Military Child Education Coalition, a national nonprofit group, estimated that 97 percent of school districts already have sufficient data collection systems in place – they just need to share the information.
While the proposed amendment wouldn’t apply to DoDEA, the system could still benefit from the identifier and the data collection by public school districts, says John “Jack” Ballantyne, senior vice president of the coalition, which works on behalf of military families and their children.
It would inform DoDEA “how the kids are doing when they’re going from state to state from either public schools into DoDEA schools or vice versa,” says Ballantyne, a retired colonel.
While requiring states to track students from military families all the way through college – as DoDEA plans to do independently – would be ideal, “We’re very happy to get this much progress on the K-12 identifier,” Ballantyne adds.
Paige Kowalski, vice president of policy and advocacy for the Data Quality Campaign – a Washington-based organization that lobbies for the effective use of student data – says tracking students from military families could help policymakers evaluate the effectiveness of programs and services, and identify where kids and schools need additional support.
She has a personal connection to the issue: Her father served in the U.S. Army, and Kowalski’s family moved every few years, both in the U.S. and abroad. Kowalski, who was born in Germany, says the relocations were toughest on her older sisters, one of whom attended four different high schools.
“If we’re going to have a conversation about the value we place on service members and what we ask them, and their families, to do, the support we provide them has to go beyond talking points,” Kowalski says. “To really serve those students, and not have them be set back academically because their families chose to serve their country – I don’t know how anyone can be against it.”
For Call, leaving Quantico would also have meant leaving his friends and the teachers who know him well. Call says they have been vital supporting factors in his path toward college. “You need to have your community, people who will push you and make sure you stay on track – I get that here.”
Indeed, DoDEA appears to be doing a solid job getting its graduates into college. Last year, 80 percent of DoDEA seniors said they planned to enroll in a two- or four-year institution, compared with 66 percent nationally. According to DoDEA, nearly two-thirds of Quantico’s graduating class is headed to four-year colleges or universities – including the University of Kentucky, George Mason University and Purdue University. Another eight students plan to attend community colleges, one student is headed to a technical college, another will train to be a flight attendant and two students are enlisting in the military.
Jessica Brown, a member of Quantico’s Class of 2015, is scheduled to join the Navy in August and take part in a specialized program that will allow her to train as a medic and later earn college credits.
Jessica, who transferred to Quantico from the DoDEA high school at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina last year, acknowledges that she’s struggled to find her academic footing — a challenge complicated by her family’s frequent relocations.
Her mother, Jennifer Brown, says she read up on the new Common Core-aligned standards after DoDEA announced its plans to implement them. She believes students from military families will benefit in the long run from greater consistency in academic expectations as they move among schools, districts, states and even countries.
Ideally, all students “will be prepared in the same manner, the same way, and have the same opportunities,” says Brown, who has worked as a substitute teacher for DoDEA.
As for Jessica, she credits Quantico’s teachers, guidance counselors, and administrators with helping her to stay on track to graduate and look further down the road than she ever has before.
“You have to have a plan,” Jessica says. “You might not always get exactly what you want but if you’re prepared you can handle whatever life throws at you. I believe that now.”
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