Education Chat

Graduation Rates: What the Research Says

Researchers Robert Balfanz and Elaine Allensworth discussed graduation rates in the wake of the findings of Education Week's annual report, Diplomas Count.

Graduation Rates: What the Research Says
July 6, 2006
Guests: Robert Balfanz, associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University; and Elaine Allensworth, associate director at the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s chat. We are discussing what the research says about graduation rates, and what schools can do to improve those rates. This has been one of the hottest topics in education this year, and we hope today’s chat will add useful and important information to the national debate about graduation rates.

Question from Bob Frangione, Education Researcher:
Have graduation rates changed dramatically in the wake of NCLB? Is there any clear method for determining graduation rates?

Robert Balfanz:
THe most recent estimates published by the US Dept of Educ show small gains in graduation rates in some states and small declines in other. One reason why grad rates have not risen dramatically is that NCLB does not really put much pressure on high schools to raise them. Each state is alllowed to measure grad rates in more or less their own way. Since uniform methods are not used it is really not possible to compare states and see who is improving and who is not. Also in many states-any improvement, even a tenth of a percentage point, counts as having fullfilled the reguirements of NCLB.

Question from Karen Lee, Ph.D., Ex. Director of Secondary Ed., Flint Community Schools:
Could you please give a quick and dirty explanation of the most common method of calculating graduation rates?

Elaine Allensworth:
There is no one method--that’s the problem. And there are so many decisions to be made, it’s hard to say what’s fair. What do you do with transfer students? What about fifth year students? Do you follow cohorts of freshmen or cohorts of graduates or should you follow students from elementary school? What about GEDs or alternative diplomas? The best way is to follow cohorts of students, defined from the beginning of their first year in high school, for at least four years, and then identify whether each of those students has graduated, dropped out, transferred or is still in school. Unfortunately, records on individual students are often not available. That is why alternative methods have been developed which use aggregate statistics to estimate graduation rates (like the cumulative promotion index).

Question from Naomi Weiss, parent, Cherry Hill Special Education PTA, advocate:
I’d like to know what percentage of students, who do not graduate high school, are disabled in some way, students with IEP’s, 504’s and those with disabilitites not identified at all during their school careers?

Elaine Allensworth:
I’m not sure how we would identify dropout rates of students whose disabilities have not been identified. Certainly, students with identified disabilities have above-average dropout rates. For example, following the most recent cohort of Chicago students from age 13 to age 19 (giving students an extra year to graduate), dropout rates among students eligible for special education services were 49%, compared to 39% for other students. And these numbers take out students still enrolled in school past age 19--almost all of whom are classified as eligible for special education services. Dropout rates for these remaining students will probably be around 50%, if they follow patterns similar to previous cohorts. Although students with disabilities are more likely to drop out than students without disabilities, they make up a minority of dropouts (e.g., 20% of the cohort discussed above) because most students do not have identified disabilities.

Question from Karen Halliday, Letterland:
1. What effect, if any, does early literacy development have on high school achievement? 2. Is government money better spent earlier or later in a student’s career?

Robert Balfanz:
Early literacy matters-money spent on good Pre-k and K instruction is money well spent. However, early education and literacy development alone will not solve the graduation rate crisis. In particulary students who live in high poverty environments may need strong supports and strong schools all the way through to graduation. In fact, Pre-k and K can in part be wasted, if students with good Pre-K and K education end up attending under resourced and over matched middle and high schools form which the majority or near majority of students dropout.

Question from Miles A. Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA, Los Angeles:
The US has an education system of second chances. Do you have the data on the ages (and numbers at each age) of high school diplomma recipients? If no data, do you have a theory on developmental patterns? In other words, not everyone will graduate from high school at the same time. Why not?

Elaine Allensworth:
I only have data on students up to age 21, and only those in Chicago. Yes, some students do succeed the second time around but any work I’ve done has suggested that it is the fortunate few who make it with a second chance. Students who return to school in Chicago after dropping out are still unlikely to graduate, very few go to alternative schools/GED programs, and very few of those actually get diplomas. Of those who do get an alternative degree/GED few go to college and few of those get a postsecondary degree. When second chance opportunities are small compared to the number of students who could be served, and the success rates are low for those students who do get in, I don’t really consider it a system of second chances as much as the perception of second chances. If you have data that tells a different story please let me know!

Question from N. Thompson, Parent:
I think kids are bored by teachers who are teaching with the same antiquated methods used to teach us and our parents. Is there any incentive for teachers to use more innovative teaching methods, and for the use of more technology to teach in the classroom?

Robert Balfanz:
Good question. Students are more engaged when teaching is more interactive and learning is more participatory. And you are right to ask about incentives because it can take a lot of work to develop and refine new methods and figure out how to make them work in your classroom. So I agree, that one reason we might not see more of this kind of teaching is that we are not giving teachers enough support and incentives to do so. Also narrow accountability systems and tests can further limit the adoption and development of more engaging instruction because trying somethign new involves risk and if it does not work out, teachers can face ramifications if their test scores did not go up that year.

Question from Eleanor Carbary, Board Member, New Miami Local Schools:
What do you feel are the worst mistakes schools can make that would lead to high school dropout increases, especially in a low socioeconomic high school? What influence does a test driven curriculum have on these low graduation rates?

Elaine Allensworth:
Off the top of my head: 1) Policies that address misbehavior by keeping students out of class (e.g., long lines at attendance office, suspensions); 2) The attitude that it’s good for students to fail (if students aren’t doing the work we need to find out why and work on better performance rather than assuming failure is a lesson in itself); 3) Ignoring instructional quality (students will work hard when they see school classwork as relevant & when expectations are clear, and better course performance leads to a higher likelihood of graduation).

Question from Janice McLaughlin, High School Teacher, Pittsylvania County Schools:
Is it true that some colleges are accepting students for degree programs without a high school diploma or GED?

Robert Balfanz:
I probably read the same newspaper accounts as you, and all I know is yes a few are.

Question from Chuck Powell, Division Director, AVID:
Does high school graduation by itself actually matter for students if that is the highest level of education/training they ever achieve? Mustn’t we address high school completion and the transition to post-secondary education & training simultaneously?

Robert Balfanz:
Yes, in today’s world high school graduation is primarily a stepping stone to post-secondary schooling or training rather than an end in itself. So we should aim to graduate students, aim to have them prepapred to succeed in post-secondary training or schooling, and even go a step further and actively help them make the transiton from high school to the next level. That said it is still better to graduate from high school, with the above, than not graduate at all. This still shows a level of perservence and ability to complete a range of tasks, manage time, etc which are important life and work skills.

Question from Randolph Thomas, Evaluation Specilist:
What are three common factors among students who fail to graduate that are not shrared by students who graduate?

Robert Balfanz:
Students who do not graduate commonly have poor attendence records-my rule of thumb is that students who attend 90% of the time or more graduate 80% of the time or more. Students who graduate typically pass all or nearly all of their course and earn on time promotion from grade to grade. Most students who fail to graduate, fail a lot of courses and repeat one or more grade, one or more times. Students who graduate also typically have a smoother transiton to the norms and expectations of secondary school.

Question from Joe Bagwell, Graduation Specialist, East Hall High:
For some at risk students a 4.5 or 5 year plan seems to be more realistic for graduation (certainly for some ESOL students). Do we track these students and where would they fit in the graduation rate formula?

Elaine Allensworth:
Yes, we must track students even if they are on a five plan. If a district really believes that a five-year plan is appropriate, and if students and parents are behind the plan, then the district should produce five-year rates. If the district must produce four-year rates then they should produce both 4-year graduation and dropout rates, with those students still in school counted as non-graduate non-dropouts. However, those statistics are not comparable to those of districts that do not count those students and both the graduation and dropout rate will be smaller than if allowed to go five years. That said, I get really nervous when a district starts expecting students to take five years. It gives no wiggle room for failure, and it’s a rare student who will stay in school until age 19 or 20 when his peers have moved on and adult responsibilities have crept in.

Question from Andrea Neal, 8th Grade Teacher, St. Richard’s School; education columnist, Indiana Policy Review:
Last week’s Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report labeled Indiana as having the highest dropout rate in the nation, with 13 percent of teenagers from 16 to 19 quitting school in 2004. This differs from other national rankings. Can you clarify the standings? What states do have the highest dropout rates and what are the predominant reasons for their rankins?

Robert Balfanz:
I am not familar with the details of the Annie E. Casey report but it sounds to me like they are using census information or reports from the current population survey. In either case these are based on asking a sample of repsondents if they are currently enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma. This is a different way to measure the dropout or graduation rate then many state use. So the short answer is that different measures can lead to different results. Have you seen the map Education Week’s Diplomas Count issue-that provides a pretty good visual of which states and counties have the highest dropout rates. My read is that dropping out of high school is highly correlated with poverty and in particular living in areas of concentrated poverty. Then on top of that there will be the 10 to 20% of kids who become disaffected, have a life event, or become frustrated and leave school. But my guess is that this number is more or less constant across states and its differences in concentrated poverty which lead some state and area to have more dropouts then others.

Question from Cheryl Saliwanchik-Brown, Doctoral Student, University of Maine:
I recently attended a tele-conference where educational administrators in Maine were advised of new policies to ensure accurate completion rates for high school students. The policy includes extending high school by one or more years and then re-assigning students who fail to show achievement (get credits) to an additional year. This way, failing students won’t be counted with their entering cohort, and won’t be listed as dropouts if they continue with their fifth year. Do you believe this as a reliable way to measure high school completion rates, or is it merely a loop-hole that will give the schools another way to separate the “outliers” and boost their numbers?

Elaine Allensworth:
I’m not familiar with the specifics of this plan, but I am immediately suspicious of a calculation that switches students from one cohort to another based on their outcome. Such a statistic is not useful for analyzing trends over time. It also is not comparable to other states that allow only four years for completion. If they want to be more comprehensive they should publish both a five-year and a four-year completion rate.

Comment from Keric Ashley, California Department of Education:
Not a question, but a note to Robert Balfanz. All two-year junior colleges in California will accept students without a high school diploma.

Question from Juan Rangel, Chairperson, United Hispanic Council of Tarrant County:
What are the main reasons Hispanic students fail to graduate peculiar to their lifestyles regardless of their economic backgrounds?

How does family heritage impact graduation rates among Hispanic students particular to females as opposed to males?

Elaine Allensworth:
I don’t want to make sweeping statements about a group as diverse as all Hispanic students, so I’m going to stick with what I know, which is Chicago. I think there is a stereotype that Hispanic girls receive less support for education from their families than boys. At least in our work in Chicago in the 19990s-2000s we have not found that to be true. Hispanic girls graduate from high school at much higher rates than boys, they are at least as likely as boys to say that their parents want them to go on to college, and they attend college and graduate from college at higher rates than Hispanic boys.

We also do not find that family background explains much of the overall ethnic differences in high school graduation. In Chicago, Hispanic students graduate at higher rates than African-American students but lower rates than white or Asian students. But pretty much all of the difference in graduation rates of Latino versus white students can be explained by the schools that students attend. White students are more likely to attend magnet and high-performing schools which tend to increase individual students’ likelihood of graduating. Those Latino students who attend higher-performing schools are as likely to graduate as their Anglo peers. Some of the issues in school selection may be related to family background. Latino students are less likely to travel out of their neighborhood to attend a better school than students of other ethnicities. This may have something to do with preferences to stay close to family/friends, but it also may reflect more difficulty in navigating the school selection process for first generation families.

Where family background seems to come into play the most is in students’ postsecondary education. Latino students in Chicago are much less likely to go to college than other students, especially to a four-year college. Very few Latino students consider attending college out of state, and most continue to live at home after high school. These differences are not explained by students’ academic preparation and economic background. Interviews we have conducted with students preparing for college suggest that Latino students are more likely to want to stay close to family and they are also particularly concerned with the costs of postsecondary education. In addition, Latino students are less likely to have parents who have achieved a college education who can give them concrete advise about navigating the college process.

Question from Dr. Alfredo T. Cintrón, Instructor, MATC:
What MUST be done to increase the graduation rate of Latino students residing in the USA?

Robert Balfanz:
The need access to high quality, high intensity middle and high schools which combine high levels of academic press, with high levels of social support. Currnetly on average, Latino’s attend the largest high schools, which makes it difficult to provide the level of support and intensity needed for all students to succeed. Models exist to transform these high schools into smaller learning communities, so I am not saying they all need to be replaced with small schools but through a variety of means we need to ensure that all students recieve the intensity of instruction and support they need.

Question from David Yoshihara, Assistant Superintendent, Escalon Unified:
In an era where many diplomas are contingent upon passing of an “exit exam”, this produces inconsistencies in the rigor and relevance necessary to obtain a diploma and makes the task of selecting qualified students for college ever more challenging. Might colleges choose to settle upon a single standard (such as SAT/ACT scores) for admission rather than rely on an inconsistent gauge?

Robert Balfanz:
Yes I agree. At least part of state accountability system, maybe tha main part at the high school level should be a tests used for college entrance. This would provide students movtivation to do well on the test, and that fact that high schools would be held accountable for having students prepared to succeed on it, means high school would mobilize to prepare students for college succees not just tomeet some mininum graduation standard. And fewer tests, taken later in the high school grades, means all instruction would not be driven by necesarrily narrow accountability measures.

Question from NVP:
The school I worked in was low income and they passed students who really do not deserve to graduate. The majority of students do not do work because they know they will not be held back. As a teacher, what can I do to help these students who should be failing?

Robert Balfanz:
This is a tough one. Students need to earn promotion. Some studies have found that if students do not earn at least B’s in high school they will have great difficulty in succeeding in college. On the other hand, the evidence is also clear that holding students back, without providing sufficient support to succeed increase the dropout rate. So a middle course is needed, and middle courses are difficult. Students need to know their are consequences for not doing their part, coming everyday, behaving, and trying. On the other hand, we need to communicate to students that adults care if they succeed and if they work hard and try efforts will be made to make sure they get the support they need to succeed. I know I have not really answers your question-some teachers I know have tried B or better polices, which means work is not accepted as complete unless until a student has revised it or re-did it to a level that would earn a B. Then the revised grade and the original grade are average. Students then know that incomplete work, work that has not been brought to a B or better means they can not pass. This, however, is challenging to do by yourself without support for other teachers and adminstrators.

Question from Fran Bridges, Assistant Director, Jake Ayers Institute for Research in Urban Higher Education:
Do you forsee a greater role for higher education in helping to improve high school graduation rates?

Robert Balfanz:
Yes Higher Ed could play many roles including helping high schools in their district develop rubrics for college ready work. In other words the level of reading, writing, communicating, researching, studying, and mathematics needed to succeed in high school. There are also roles for college students to play as mentors and tutors in an organized way. Many struggling students need one-on-one guidance and help and it’s often hard for high schools to recruit enough person power for this.

Question from Dr. Robert Kimball, Lecturer, University of Houston-Clear Lake:
In 2003, Houston received national media attention because it was falsifying data resulting in a dropout rate of less than 2%. In spite of the national media attention and investigations that proved that there was a data integrity problem, Houston and other school districts in Texas report a less than 2% dropout rate in 2006. What will it take to convince school districts to report a true dropout rate of between 30 and 40%?

Robert Balfanz:
If states actually implement the graduation rate calculation method, endorsed by all 50 governors then districts will have to report more accurate rates. This NGA Grad Rate Method follows first time 9th graders to obtaining a regular diploma and only allows students to be excluded from the cohort if there is a verifiable transfer to another diploma granting high school. This would take away the non-drop withdrawl which is the key mechanism by which districts with high dropout rates, can report a low dropout rate.

Question from Doris Sandefur, Substitute Teacher, Fulton County Schools, Atlanta, GA:
Can the drop-out rate be attributed to the fact that many of them in urban schools are offered the certificate of completion in lieu of focusing on a high school diploma? Or, is it attributed to the fact that at a certain age students can drop-out with parental consent?

Robert Balfanz:
I think its more the latter. People often forget that adolescents have a vote in this. In many states you can legally drop out at 16 or 17, given that more students are being retained in grade and starting 1st grade later-many 9th graders reach the legal age to dropout before they have barely begun high school. This then provides an easy out for their frustration and schools are often ok with letting them go.

Question from Lisa Ross, Federal Policy Director, Pre-K Now:
Ms Allensworth may be more familiar with the research on my question because of the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program but I am wondering if you would comment on the research that shows increased high school graduation rates if children attend high-quality pre-k and whether you think the education community concerned with graduation rates is starting to focus on this link yet?

Elaine Allensworth:
Certainly in Illinois high quality pre-K is a big focus right now, mostly because of its connection to later academic outcomes. Nationwide, we’re suddenly seeing a big focus on high schools, but I think this is appropriate because there hasn’t been as much work on high schools in the past. Obviously, we need to work on both. It’s easier for high schools to engage students that are academically prepared and have developed the skills and behaviors needed to perform well in school.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center, Little Rock School District:
Why has this subject of graduation rates become such a hot topic this year?

Robert Balfanz:
Interest has really been rising for the past 5 years and peaking within the last two. I think this is driven in large part by the recognition that society has changed and a high school diploma has become fundemental for life success. At the same time, a number of researchers were able to call into question the rosy figures being reported by states and districts.

Question from Miles A. Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Why should the gradutation data in Diplommas Count be considered reliable? Everything I have read says graduation data is not reliable.

Robert Balfanz:
They are estimates, so I think it is more accurate to say that they will have a range of reliability. Having analyzed many of these rates and the data behind them my ballpark is plus or minus 5 percentage points, nine out of ten times. Not good enough for accountability, and numbers which seem off, maybe, but not bad for establishing a ballpark. Also accuracy might be increased if we looked at 3-year averages. The strength of the Diplomas Count data is that it is all from a common source.

Question from Mona Huff Director of Community Education:
I am in a small county of a little over 16,000. The low literacy level and poverty for the most part is generational. What can be done in both schools and community to encourage students to stay in school? Many of these students are not getting that message at home.

Robert Balfanz:
We need to show students that staying in school leads to a clear pathway to more opportunities in life. We can’t just say this because it is challenged by what they see around them and the stories of their families. So we need to link rural schools with community colleges and post-secondary training programs, and distance learning opportunities, so students can get some post-secondary schooling or work experience in high school, which will show them that if they stay in school, there are in fact opportunities.

Question from Cathy Smith, Media Specialist, Haralson County High School, Tallapoosa, GA:
In examining the data, I discovered that students who do not graduate from high school within the prescribed 4-year period, but graduate nonetheless, are not counted in the graduation rate figures. This means that students who persist and complete high school education, even though they stumble along the way, are not statistically counted as successes. This is troubling, considering the fact that these are students who, rather than drop out, continue toward and achieve an important long-term goal that ultimately keeps doors open to a successful life. Is it wise to overlook students who complete, even though they may take longer than the prescribed 4-year period?

Robert Balfanz:
No I agree. We need to measure two things a) the on-time four year graduation rate and b) the all time (or lets say at least 6 year) graduation rate and have both count equally in accountability systems.

Question from Lowell Moore, School Counselor, Florida Virtual School:
How does the taking of on-line courses affect graduation rates?

Robert Balfanz:
I don’t know a lot about this. If the on-line course can be taken for high school credit and to fullfill graduation requirements then it could provide a means for students to recover from failing courses and help them stay on the path to graduation or provide a means for dropouts who return to school to accelerate the time it takes to get a diploma. We need to find alternatives for 18,19, and even 20 year old students with few high school credits, to saying they need to still attend 4 years of high school. On the other hand, we need to make sure that on-line courses would provide the same skills and abilities as classroom courses.

Question from Martie Anderson NBPT/ Career and Technology:
I just read in the New York Times that a number of leading universities around the country are accepting students without a high school diploma.

I see a lot of unhappy students who feel that middle and hight school is a waste of time. Is there no way to offer a program that allows students who want to excell and move forward with their education a different option? Students too often don’t see the relevance of what they are learning. College says, I’m on the path to somewhere. High School says, " I’m here until I can get into college.” Perhaps offering more options, dual enrollment, distance learning would be an option. That way students could double up on their work and graduate earlier? Shouldn’t we consider these options?

Robert Balfanz:
Yes. Indeed. We need to acknowledge that for some students four years of traditional high school is too long.

Question from Diane Ravitch, Professor, New York University:
“Diplomas Count” reports that NYC’s graduation rate two years ago was 39%; the city Dept of Ed just announced that the graduation rate was 58%. It seems unlikely that the actual rate jumped so quickly. Nor would the inclusion of GEDs explain so large a jump. What do you think accounts for the different rates?

Robert Balfanz:
The Diplomas Count number is an estimate based on enrollment and graduation counts reported by the city to the state and then to the federal government. The Dept of Ed rate is based on following individual students through high school to graduation. This does not mean one has to necessarily be more accurate than the other, as they both can have bias. The inclusion of GED’s in the Dept of Ed rate will explain some of the difference. THe fact that three years seperates the two measures could explain some more. Remaining difference could be accounted for by either, who the Dept of Ed excludes from the cohort i.e. students who are not counted as either dropouts or graduates because they withdrew from school for a variety of reasons, or perhaps differences in the number of ninth graders who were counted in the CCD numbers used by Diplomas Count (which is based on Oct. enrollment) and the ninth graders counted in the cohort rate. The Diplomas Count measure could also be impacted by a large number of 9th grade repeaters or substantial out migration.

Question from Sebreana Domingue, education reporter The Daily Advertiser:
In Louisiana and around the nation, less than 45 percent of black males graduate from high school. What are the reasons for this low rate, and why are districts not addressing this problem?

Elaine Allensworth:
I think a lot of people are asking that question around the country, and they should be! I’ll tell you this -- it’s not an issue of “Black males” somehow being different than anyone else, but the combination of a racial gap and a gender gap. The gender gap exists across all racial groups. The racial gap exists in both genders, you add them together and you get a really distressing rate for Black males, but not a gap that’s below what you would expect from the combination of the two. The racial gap we can largely explain by the quality of schools that students attend, differences in economic backgrounds, and then circumstances like mobility and community violence. The gender gap is much harder to explain. It’s not a matter of boys skipping school more or studying less--they do a bit, but not to such an extent that it would explain the differences. This is something we need to study further.

Question from Maia Blankenship, College Summit Inc.,:
What are your thoughts on tracking college enrollment rates AND high school graduation rates? Do you think looking at the results of both metrics together would be valuable? What are some leading indicators that could be tracked to assess high school graduations before the end of four years for a cohort?

Elaine Allensworth:
We’re doing that in Chicago. Look at the latest report from the Consortium on chicago School Research.

Question from delia armstrong busby adventures in learning k-12 systemic dropout intervention:
I have consulted with districts nation wide in the field of dropout intervention

there is great resistence to making the changes that are needed systemically to improve the situation

Without using the word blame

Why are school systems so reluctant to change?

Elaine Allensworth:
Well... it is not an easy task to change the culture and structure of a school. But, some colleagues and I did ask a similar question in a paper we presented called “how can we get high schools to care about dropout rates?” In that paper we proposed that there were two prevailing beliefs that kept educators from wanting to work on the problem: 1)that working on preventing dropouts conflicts with efforts to raise student achievement; and 2) that dropping out is a reflection of individual student pathology and not the responsibility of schools. While we believe neither of these to be true, these ideas are pervasive.

For two years, my colleague Melissa Roderick served as director of planning in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). When she would meet about the dropout issue with school personnel, the educators at the table consistently characterized dropouts as having at least one of three characteristics: (1) low academic skills that made completing schoolwork difficult (2) home problems or child care responsibilities that compromised their capacity to attend school regularly, and/or (3) substantial social difficulties, including gang involvement or parenthood that were beyond a schools’ reach. Educators argued vehemently that differences in the dropout rate across high schools were simply a reflection of differences in the students they served, and were not a result of any actual differences in the quality of a school’s programs, teachers, or administrators. Thus, dropout is seen as a characteristic that students bring to school, not a problem that has to do with the school. Therefore, from this perspective, working to alleviate the problem means adding supports for “extremely disadvantaged” students, not changing the practices in a school or classroom. And if the current dropout rate is the result of students with extreme difficulties, then reducing dropout rates further will mean adding more accommodations, such as lowering standards, later classes, flexible scheduling, or evening programs. Thus, lowering achievement.

While we do not deny that it is much more difficult for a student to persist in school if he is struggling with substantial social, economic or academic problems, a school with a dropout rate of 40% (typical in Chicago) cannot view dropouts as deviants. They are typical students for that high school. And the notion that students’ experiences at school are unrelated to their decisions to persist are also unfounded. In fact, there are wide differences in dropout rates among schools serving very similar populations of students. These differences are related to the climate in the school--relationships between teachers and students and the academic orientation among students--and the quality of the instruction students receive. There is also no evidence that working to improve graduation rates and working to improve achievement are contradictory goals. In Chicago, we have repeatedly found that efforts resulting in improved achievement simultaneously resulted in improved graduation rates. If we work to improve students’ performance in their classes we can simultaneously improve both their test scores and their likelihood of graduation. This means better monitoring, better instruction, better support.

Question from Paula T. Morris, Founder, Kids of Honor:
In Salisbury, Maryland, the non-profit organization Kids of Honor seeks to improve the lives and futures of struggling students by providing the tools and motivation to graduate from high school. We embrace the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Asset approach to working with young people. Are there other similar programs that focus on High School graduation? Is there any research to support and validate these types of programs?

Robert Balfanz:
I am not an expert in developmental psychology but I do know that many students who struggle to graduate do so because they have not made a successful transition to the norms, expectations, and demands of secondary school and the Developmental Asset approach seems like a good support to help engage students and provide them with key outlooks and approaches they need to succeed in high school. The AVID program is another program which tries to build up the strengths of students in high school to succeed in college.

Question from Joe Parker, Supervisor, Roane County, TN School System:
In view of the controversy surrounding graduation rates, would it be in the best interests of all to have a standardized, uniform method of measuring graduation rates? What might one look like?

Robert Balfanz:
Yes. The National Governors Association Rate is the way to go.

Question from Cathy Smith, Media Specialist, Haralson County High School, Tallapoosa, GA:
Is it common for students who are not progressing as expected to transfer into a different school system, attend briefly, experience failure there, and then become the second school’s dropout? This seems unfair to school systems who must accept these enrollments.

Elaine Allensworth:
Yes, that’s why the way that transfers are counted into graduation rates is really crucial for accuracy and fairness. I think students should always be counted with the school that they started in. If they transfer, it should be either for no academic reason or because they’re moving to a better fit.

Question from Ron Hastings, Assistant Principal, Northwest High School:
How do the graduation rates from the 70’s. 80’s and 90’s compare with today’s rates.

Robert Balfanz:
Rates improved througout the 70’s and 80’s. They appear to have stagnated in the 90’s.

Question from Cherise Khaund, League of Education Voters, Seattle:
We are updating our “citizens report card” on Washington State education, including data on graduation rates. Last year we used the Manhattan Institute’s 2002 data and state ranking. What do you recommend we use this year, since there seem to be varying numbers available?

Robert Balfanz:
I would use the US Dept of Education’s Average Freshmen Graduation Rate. They just published a report which gives rates for states for 2003-2004. This is the most recent data availble

Question from Valerie Edwards, Strategic Planner, Los Angeles Unified School District:
Isn’t much of the current argument on graduation rates about how we are defining the ‘denominator?’ Each study uses a different method of counting who has graduated.

Robert Balfanz:
In large part yes. And also different rules for who should and should not be counted as attempting to graduate but not succeeding.

Question from Ford Morishita, science teacher, Clackamas HS:
To what extent has NCLB and other assessment requirements influenced HS students to forgo traditional diploma pathway and replace with GED or other state diploma options?

Robert Balfanz:
I don’t think it’s NCLB directly as many states had large GED programs prior to NCLB. But it may have pushed some schools and districts to steer more students into these programs, but again more because of loopholes in how NCLB is being implemented. In theory NCLB wants students to graduate with a diploma in the standard number of years. But a number of states are still being allowed to exclude students from Grad Rate accountability by saying they are getting GED’s.

Question from Bobby Franklin, Ed. Program Consultant, Louisiana Department of Education:
Many students enter high school lacking the skills to succeed. How should we address this problem?

Robert Balfanz:
No easy answers but a couple of directions stand out. First it’s important to be able to diagnose what skills are lacking. Many students with “below grade level skills” still have substantial strengths and many remedial programs often fail by assuming the students need to start at square one. So for example, most strugling high school students can perform basic calculations and read simple paragraphs. What they lack are intermediate mathematics skills, reading comprension strategies, vocabulary and fluency. So answer 1 is to make sure struggling students get the right kind of extra help and with sufficient intensity to make a difference. A second key fact, is that at least at the high school level poor skills and weak or declining motivation and effort often come together. So efforts are also needed to get students to come to school regularly and try hard-connecting the work students do in high school to college and careers can help with this. A third answer is to take a secondary approach to helping struggling high school students-in other words have unified middle and high school reforms which seek to keep students on the graduation track starting in sixth grade and working to have more students enter high school with close to high school level schools.

Question from Philip Pearson, Student, U of Southern Mississippi:
Do dropout rates coordinate with grade school reading scores?

What has research shown to be the best way to reduce dropout rates?

Does teacher/counselor/administrator attitude towards at-risk HS students affect dropout rates?

Has high-stakes testing affected dropout rates?

Has the movement towards higher academic standards for graduation affected dropout rates?

Elaine Allensworth:
I’m going to answer these questions in order.

Yes, students with higher elementary school test scores are less likely to drop out than students with lower test scores. However, the relationship is far from deterministic. Many students enter high school with strong test scores and fail to graduate, while many others with poor test scores in elementary school do manage to graduate. Much more predictive than elementary test scores (either reading or math or both) is how students perform in the first quarter of their first year of high school--particularly if they receive any Fs or have high absence rates. In fact, freshman year absences are over twenty times more predictive of eventual graduation than are incoming test scores. Grades other than Fs are important, too, and it seems like the freshman year sets the stage for performance throughout the rest of high school--the students who eventually drop out are mostly those getting Ds and Fs their freshman year, the students who graduate with an “A” average were those who received “As” in their freshman year. Even in a school district with a high dropout rate like Chicago (47%), over 93% of the students who maintain a “B” average or better their freshman year graduate within four years. The freshman transition is crucial, even for students who enter with strong achievement.

The best way to reduce drop out rates? Good question. I’m advocating for paying close attention to the transition to high school (as you can tell from my answer above). Students may be performing poorly in their classes for a variety of reasons, from weak academic preparation to stresses from peers to family instability to lack of behavioral skills, to lack of clarity about classroom expectations. We can’t fix every problem at once, especially those out of control of the school. What we can do is identify those students who are struggling right away, in the freshman year, and help them develop strategies to improve their academic performance and to recover from any failures they’ve received. This doesn’t mean simply putting in programs for the students with multiple Fs--these students are unlikely to graduate without substantial support. We need to pay attention to students who are just getting by in their freshman year--those with Ds and one or two Fs. Often these students are seen as doing all right and not in need of monitoring or support, compared to students that are really struggling. But these are the majority of the students at high risk for dropout, and they are also more amenable to support and intervention. This also doesn’t mean assigning just one person to support potential dropouts, but getting all teachers and staff to see monitoring and support as part of their job.

Attitudes - yes, and not just for the most at-risk students. There’s a lot that could be said here. I’m going to refer to some work that Melissa Roderick did. She followed a group of students from eighth grade into high school, interviewing their 8th and 9th grade teachers about each student’s motivation, effort, likelihood to succeed, etc. She found evidence that, because high school teachers were less likely to know their students well, they were more likely to attribute poor performance to a lack of motivation or skills, and so unlikely to offer support. Several of her case studies were students who received As and Bs in elementary school and were rated as high on motivation and success by their eighth grade teachers. They went through a stressful event which caused a dip in their performance. Their ninth grade teachers described them as unmotivated and unlikely to succeed, and so were less likely to offer support.

High-stakes testing that holds students back in school does make them more likely to drop out. There is a clear relationship betwen holding students back a grade and increasing their likelihood of dropping out. A couple of years ago I did a study on Chicago’s policy to enact promotion standards in the eighth grade. This policy resulted in more students being held back from entering high school, so they could not accumulate credits and graduate by age 18. That is, to graduate they would need to stay in school at least a year longer than their peers, and these were students who alrady had higher levels of disengagement from school. Many students were held back repeatedly, so they had virtually no possibility of graduating even before age 20. Dropout rates increased beyond what would have been expected for students who were held back by this policy.

I haven’t seen any good evidence that the movement for higher academic standards has affected dropout rates in a negative way. The evidence from Chicago is the opposite--higher standards have led to improved graduation rates. We didn’t see any increase in “pushing out” students when Chicago implemented tough school accountability policies in the mid-1990s, and we haven’t seen any evidence with NCLB. This isn’t to say that schools aren’t pushing out students they see as academically weak, just that they aren’t doing it any more than they ever did.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this informative discussion about graduation rates. And a special thanks to our guests for taking the time to answer many questions. This chat is now over. A transcript will be posted shortly on

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