About three-fourths of Florida 9th graders who were never suspended out of school as freshmen graduated from high school, compared with a 52 percent graduation rate for those suspended once and a 38 percent rate for those suspended twice in their first high school year, an analysis has found.
Often, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found, students suspended also were failing courses and absent for other reasons.
While there has been a push, especially in recent years, to cut out-of-school suspensions, the findings suggest that changing discipline policies to curb suspensions alone isn’t a sure way to improve student achievement or graduation rates, said Robert Balfanz, the co-director of the university’s Everyone Graduates Center in Baltimore and the study’s lead author.
Schools must find ways to motivate students who aren’t engaged in their learning, he said, and intervene when students miss a lot of school, misbehave, and perform poorly in class—all of which are early warning signs that a student may drop out.
“We need a more holistic answer to this problem than ‘suspend fewer kids,’” Mr. Balfanz said.
The study, discussed last week at a national conference about the effects of disciplinary policies that remove students from school, looked at nearly 182,000 Florida students who were 9th graders during the 2000-01 school year and followed their educational trajectories through 2008-09.
“We knew from a lot of the other work that’s been done recently that lots of kids get suspended,” Mr. Balfanz said.
Of the Florida students, 27 percent were suspended at least once in 9th grade. And the study, like many others on the issue of out-of-school suspension, found that black students, special education students, and low-income students were disproportionately affected by the disciplinary measure.
“We wanted to figure out what are the consequences of that common occurrence,” Mr. Balfanz added. “What we found that did surprise us a little bit: Even one suspension matters.”
And the effects appear to be long-lasting: A larger percentage of students who had never been suspended as freshmen enrolled in postsecondary coursework. And students who went to college who had never been suspended completed, on average, four terms in college, compared with slightly less than two college terms by students suspended once.
Although the research focused on students in Florida, Mr. Balfanz said he believes the results are representative of the entire nation.
Jadine Johnson, a staff lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is based in Montgomery, Ala., agreed. A 2009 study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama found that one out-of-school suspension for a 9th grader in the Mobile, Ala., public schools was also an indication that a student might drop out of school.
“It is happening all across the country. [Mr. Balfanz’s] research just reflects that,” Ms. Johnson said.
The law center sued the 63,000-student Mobile district in 2011 over long-term suspensions of students that the organization says were handed down without following due process. A trial is scheduled to begin in federal court in August.
The new research, she said, shows that “the impacts of suspension, particularly for 9th grade students, cannot be overstated.”
“As districts continue to work on graduation rates, they have to look at suspension rates,” Ms. Johnson added, as well as why students are being suspended and how they are being suspended.
The Jan. 10 conference included discussions of other studies looking at student behavior, school climate, and school safety. The event, “Closing the School Discipline Gap: Research to Practice,” was organized by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at the University of California, Los Angeles. Findings from Education Week‘s 2013 Quality Counts report, “Code of Conduct: Safety, Discipline, and School Climate,” also were presented at the daylong meeting.
Especially for students with several out-of-school suspensions, schools must get at the heart of the behavior problems triggering the suspensions and work on ways to engage the students in their learning, Mr. Balfanz said. Multiple suspensions, he said, only add to the students’ disengagement and likelihood of quitting school altogether.
At some schools in the 200,000-student Hillsborough County, Fla., district, dropout-prevention and student-intervention specialists monitor students who are disciplined, failing courses, and repeatedly absent, said MaryLou Whaley, a supervisor in the district’s Title I office. Schools have long recognized that trio of factors as a recipe for educational disaster.
“When they’re compounded, it’s that much more difficult to walk across the stage” and collect a diploma, Ms. Whaley said. The specialists work on connecting students with the proper supports to resolve those issues.
That is especially critical in the pivotal 9th grade year, when the transition from a more sheltered middle school can result in students floundering in a sea of freshman anonymity, Ms. Whaley said. In one student’s case, she said, a specialist talked with the youth’s teachers and asked them to be sure to check in with the student and see that he was OK every day.
“Not all teachers like all students, and not all students like all teachers: That’s the real world,” she said. “It’s so important to be noticed.”
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Fla. Data Link Suspension to Lower Graduation Rates