School & District Management

District Research Reveals Ways to Help At-Risk Students Graduate

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 01, 2014 3 min read
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Yesterday I reported on the overwhelming lack of capacity for educators and administrators to use most of the data being generated by schools.

But that’s not the whole story. Here at the National Center on Education Statistics data conference, districts and states also show how a little data use can go a long way to helping schools solve difficult problems.

Take college readiness. While most states now have graduation requirements intended to launch students well in college and careers after graduation, it can be tough to identify how on- or off-track students really are in any given year.

The District of Columbia and Howard County, Md. school districts have created separate analytic systems to help principals identify not only students at risk of dropping out, but those likely to graduate but struggle in college. “If we don’t take care of students who are struggling, they might be students who delay graduation, not enroll in college, or go but drop out of college,” said Vasuki Rethinam, data specialist for the 51,000-student Howard County district.

Rethinam and her colleagues used existing district data and college data from the National Student Clearinghouse to track nearly 6,300 first-time freshmen through graduation and beyond. They found students who earned a 1650 or better on the SAT or a 24 or better on the ACT were four times more likely to graduate and enroll in college immediately. But the PSAT, taken in sophomore year, was an even stronger predictor; students who scored at or more than 145 on that test were 13 times as likely to go on to college.

With that, the analysts found completing at least one Advanced placement course in 11th grade also quadrupled college likelihood. For students not in poverty, completing rigorous coursework closed racial gaps almost entirely. For example, going just on the race of students not in poverty, black freshmen had a 28 percent likelihood of being college-ready by graduation, and Hispanic students a 39 percent probability, compared to 56 percent and 69 percent for white and Asian students respectively. However, among students who completed Algebra 1 in 8th grade, at least one advanced class in 9th grade, and Algebra 2 and one Advanced Placement course by the end of 11th grade, the likelihood of going to college was 95 percent or more for all students, regardless of race.

“This was the first time we did such rigorous research at the district level and presented it to our principals about their students’ data,” Rethinam said. One high school created a new Algebra I tutorial and a PSAT advisory group to monitor students’ trajectories. The data presentation has also spurred more high schools to work more closely with their feeder schools. “We need to bring elementary and middle school teachers into the discussion of college readiness, because we found course rigor begins as early as elementary school,” Rethinam said.

Washington Seeks Outliers

Washington D.C. district and charter schools also pooled their data to identify students’ likelihood of getting to college, and were confronted with the depressing fact that not only are 40 percent of students in the city not graduating high school within five years, but 25 percent are already almost certain to drop out—called “immediately disengaged"—by the end of 8th grade.

Yet the data also revealed that “middle school and student characteristics aren’t destiny,” said Steve Cartwright, the director of data and analytics of Tembo, a data firm that works with the district. “There are wild variations in grad rate based on where you go to high school.”

For example, among the top-performing 25 percent of students in 8th grade, there was a 69-percentage-point difference in whether or not the students went to college based on whether they attended schools performing in the top or bottom quartile. Likewise, the analysts found 18 schools that boosted the likelihood of graduating on time for students in the bottom 25 percent in 8th grade by 15 percentage points or more, well above the district average. The school system is now looking closely at these outliers to determine what lessons they may hold for other schools.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.