Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Executive Summary

By The Editors — June 03, 2010 7 min read

Perhaps it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: Knowledge is power.

When the public considers schools, the focus is usually on how they build knowledge in children. The attention is on outcomes: subjects learned, books read, math problems solved, historical facts memorized, diplomas granted. But there is another side to the schools-and-knowledge relationship. And that is how schools come to know their students—their strengths, their weaknesses, and, when it turns to high school, their likelihood of someday graduating.

Every year, Diplomas Count takes a careful look at nationwide trends related to high school graduation. This year, we have titled our report Graduation by the Numbers—Putting Data to Work for Student Success. As one of the stories in Diplomas Count 2010 is headlined, our goal here is to chronicle “data in action.”

We pair our reporting with new, original analysis on high school completion from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. Unhappily for schools, this year’s research shows that today’s graduation climate is a tough one, particularly for minority students and those growing up in about two dozen hardscrabble communities where the odds seem stacked against graduating.

Today, more school districts than ever are collecting a variety of student-performance data, many with an eye toward predicting who is most likely to drop out and what will work to keep those students in school. The school systems featured in this report tackle data collection in different ways, but they share a desire to go beyond numbers alone and a thoughtfulness in the ways they’ve been able to do so. In this way, “graduation by the numbers” becomes the story of using numbers—data, statistics—to plot a real, practical course of action that will help put students now at risk of dropping out on track to earn diplomas and, if all goes well, to continue their educations in college.

Further Decline

Much of the information in this report is sobering.

According to the EPE Research Center’s latest analysis of high school completion for Diplomas Count, the national graduation rate stands at 68.8 percent for the class of 2007, the most recent year for which data are available. That represents a slight drop, four-tenths of a percentage point, from 69.2 percent for the previous high school class; it also marks the second consecutive year of declines in the national graduation rate, following a decade of mostly solid improvement.

The latest decrease is considerably smaller than the nearly point-and-a-half drop from 2005 to 2006. Even so, a 0.4-percentage-point decline in the graduation rate means diplomas for 11,000 fewer students nationally in the class of 2007, compared with the previous year.

Perhaps more troubling are the persistent graduation gaps between students in different demographic groups.

Although more than three-quarters of white and Asian students in the United States earn diplomas, high school outcomes are much worse for others. Among Latinos, 56 percent successfully finish high school, while 54 percent of African-Americans and 51 percent of Native Americans graduate. On average, only two-thirds of male students earn a diploma, a rate 7 percentage points lower than the rate for female students. Rates of high school completion for males from historically disadvantaged minority groups consistently fall at or below the 50 percent mark.

Across all urban school systems, the data show six out of every 10 students from the class of 2007 graduating. In districts characterized by high levels of racial or socioeconomic segregation and those serving communities with high rates of poverty, graduation rates typically range from 55 percent to 60 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, the EPE Research Center identifies 21 “urban overachievers,” big-city districts where the actual 2007 graduation rate is 10 percentage points higher than expected based on their circumstances.

Concentrated Crisis

In digging more deeply into the numbers, a few other revelations stand out. For example, a closer look at the national graduation statistics shows that each major racial and ethnic group post at least a marginal gain in graduation rates from year to year. That finding, seemingly contradictory with the national graduation-rate decline, prompts the question: How can that be?

The answer: shifting demographic patterns. Over time, the public school population has come to consist of proportionately fewer traditionally higher-performing white students and of more members of historically underserved groups, most notably Latinos. All else being equal, population growth among groups with low average graduation rates will tend to depress improvements in the overall graduation trend.

The Diplomas Count 2010 analysis also reveals a surprisingly concentrated dropout crisis. There are 11,000 school systems nationwide that enroll students at the secondary level, but a mere 25 districts account for one in every five nongraduates for the entire nation, or more than a quarter-million students who failed to graduate.

Those epicenters of the dropout crisis are a combination of traditional big-city districts and large countywide school systems. The New York City school system, the nation’s largest district, serves 1.1 million students and emerges as the leading source of nongraduates, with nearly 44,000 students lost each year. But the 678,000-student Los Angeles Unified district, despite its smaller size, generates a comparable number of dropouts, owing to a graduation rate 14 points lower than in New York.

Former Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia told Diplomas Count that using data is not a luxury, but a necessity for schools today. Wise, who is the president of the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, says schools need to draw on data-driven strategies. Comprehensive, careful analysis is critical to progress.

Putting Data to Work

“Every decision needs to have data showing why it works and helping teachers inform their decisions with data that helps improve student learning,” he says. Comprehensive data systems “can immediately capture what is happening in a student’s life and sound the warning so you can intervene.”

The school officials interviewed for this report illustrate what can happen when educators keep a close watch on their students and the different strands of relevant information about their academic performance, school attendance, and home lives.

And, while there are places where the dropout problem is concentrated, there are also cities, towns, and counties where educators are working hard to reverse negative trends. In Minneapolis, electronic “dashboards” appear on school principals’ computer monitors the moment they log on in the morning. Those dashboards summarize student and teacher attendance, as well as daily student-suspension numbers, and some achievement data.

In addition, secondary school principals can access an early-warning system that tracks student attendance, behavior, GPA, credits earned, and state test data, along with other indicators. The aim is to enable school leaders to intervene before a problem becomes a crisis.

Meanwhile, in Nashville, Tenn., the district has opened small alternative high schools to help harried students continue to learn. Data pointed district leaders to the realization that certain students were more likely to drop out because of pressures they felt at home to work to support their families. School officials have tried to create “flexible, alternative structures,” says Nashville Superintendent Jesse Register. The alternatives “are very centered on those young people who have great family demands that prevent them from attending a regular school schedule,” he says.

In Fall River, Mass., school officials used data to confirm their observations about high school students. The outcome has been solutions with a practical focus that are keeping more students on pace for graduation. Those steps range from subsidized public-transportation fees to a high school program in nontraditional hours similar to Nashville’s approach.

Across the country in Stockton, Calif., the focus has been on cleaning up inaccurate data on dropouts and then finding the real dropouts in hopes of luring them back to the classroom. Finally, in rural Oconee County, S.C., educators are turning to graduation coaches who can use statistical information to identify potential dropouts early and work with them to keep them in school.

The goal everywhere is action—well-informed action. Or, as Wise puts it: “GM can’t make cars anymore just on good feelings, and we can’t continue to educate kids the same way.”

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