College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Raising Graduation Rates in an Era of High Standards

By Cheryl Almeida & Adria Steinberg — July 25, 2008 7 min read
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In the waning months of the Bush administration, both public officials and private-sector leaders are demonstrating great interest in addressing the shockingly high dropout rate in many American high schools. In April, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that the U.S. Department of Education will begin requiring all states to calculate graduation rates the same way by the 2012-13 school year.

She made the announcement at the same time that former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was helping launch the America’s Promise Alliance’s nationwide campaign to combat the problem, an initiative that will convene dropout-prevention summits in 50 states and 50 cities by the end of 2010.

This is all good news. It is time that the simmering concern about the fate of those who never complete high school comes to a boil. It is also time that policies to prevent students from leaving school and to reduce dropout rates be made as high a priority as policies designed to raise overall academic performance to a college-ready standard.

The National Governors Association accelerated this effort three years ago when it pushed states to voluntarily agree to use common measures of dropping out. For years, states had routinely reported graduation rates of 90 percent or higher. We know that the real average for most states is closer to 70 percent. And as Secretary Spellings’ announcement indicates, still more progress needs to be made. In the next few years, it will be critical for states to move beyond the important task of implementing new standards for calculating cohort graduation rates, to create a range of incentives, supports, and sanctions that can help more high schools graduate many more students ready for college and careers.

Next-generation accountability systems should redress the single-minded emphasis in current systems on meeting high standards by giving weight to graduation as an equally critical goal.

A blueprint for this policy agenda is taking shape. States are beginning to implement legislation and policies that make graduation rates as important an accountability measure as high academic performance. A growing number of state-level efforts seek to identify and support struggling students early, quickly address poorly performing high schools, and support the creation of new schools and programs that work for struggling and out-of-school youths. These efforts are as much a part of the college-ready agenda as setting and raising academic-performance levels for those who make it through high school.

A number of states are taking the lead. Some, like Georgia and Indiana, have passed new dropout-prevention legislation. Others, including Michigan and Kentucky, have set numeric goals for postsecondary completion. Still others, such as Massachusetts, are building P-16 longitudinal-data systems and beginning to study inefficiencies and leaks in the pipeline that links education to economic growth, so that graduation rates can be increased and successful transitions to college maximized.

These first steps are tentative, though. State policymakers worry that the goal of keeping more students in school until they graduate, while also raising expectations for them, may constitute another “mission impossible.” But new research and lessons from the field and from the states have helped outline a coherent set of policy strategies addressing this problem systematically. It is now up to all states to incorporate this framework into their own policies and practices.

During the past several years, our nonprofit organization, Jobs for the Future, has partnered with Achieve Inc. in an initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study how states might best support such efforts to raise standards and graduation rates. In “Raising Graduation Rates in an Era of High Standards,” a report that builds on this work, we call on state policymakers to follow the lead of their most innovative peers and commit to five critical outcomes for their districts, schools, and students. Our work suggests specific steps states can take to focus high school reform efforts on securing the following five outcomes:

A high school diploma that signifies college- and work-readiness. States must ensure equal access for all young people to academically challenging, high-quality high school programs of study—and do that without stifling local and school-based innovation and flexibility in curriculum design. To have quality, equity, and consistency in the delivery of a college-prep course of study, states will need to monitor coursetaking patterns, disaggregate data for race and income, include student-transcript data in state data systems, and connect K-12 and postsecondary data systems, so that student progress to and through college can be tracked. Making sure that curricular innovation is not stifled in the quest for consistency will require that states give districts flexibility, holding schools responsible for outcomes while supporting and aiding the innovators who want to create evidence-based instructional programs that will engage particular groups of struggling students and help them succeed.

Pathways to graduation and college success for struggling and out-of-school students. Effective high schools—particularly those for low-income, African-American, and Hispanic youths—tend to be small and to emphasize relationships, relevance, and academic rigor. There are far too few of these, and few vehicles for their development and support. States need to establish these vehicles, as well as the conditions and funding to ensure that such schools are developed or replicated in communities with concentrations of struggling students and dropouts.

North Carolina stands out in this regard for its effort to support partnerships and other means for spurring new school development. The state’s New Schools Project is the school-development entity for Gov. Michael F. Easley’s ambitious Learn and Earn high schools. It has already created more than 40 new schools whose students can earn both a high school diploma and up to two years of college credit or an associate degree, tuition-free.

Turnaround of low-performing high schools. States need to identify low-performing “dropout factory” high schools, and work with districts to create the conditions and capacities either to turn these schools around or replace them with more-effective options. A few states, such as Florida and Arizona, now provide supports for their lowest-performing schools. These include technical assistance, capacity-building, and funding. Equally important, both states ensure that a lack of reform progress will result in significant state intervention. In an era of limited resources, one of the most important sources of funding for new, effective schools and programs will have to be the replacement of dropout factories with more evidence-based, high-quality options for those schools’ students.

Increased emphasis on graduation rates and college-readiness in next-generation accountability. Additional accountability indicators, recognitions, and incentives—starting with a set of “on-track metrics” predictive of high school graduation, such as promotion from 9th to 10th grade, or completion of core courses—can help states encourage schools and districts to hold on to struggling students, get them back on track to a diploma, and increase their readiness for college and careers.

Louisiana’s Graduation Index creates incentives for high schools both to keep students enrolled through graduation and to provide a rigorous curriculum through the senior year. Next-generation accountability systems should redress the single-minded emphasis in current systems on meeting high standards by giving weight to graduation as an equally critical goal.

Early and continuous support for struggling students. Research in Chicago and Philadelphia has identified powerful 6th and 9th grade school-based indicators of the likelihood of dropping out, such as academic performance in core courses, credit accumulation, and attendance. If states strengthened their data systems to include such indicators and also helped school districts develop and use accurate early-warning systems to identify off-track students and target interventions early, far more struggling students would get back on track and succeed in high school and beyond.

The time is right for state action to raise graduation rates at the same time that academic-performance expectations are being raised. The public, increasingly concerned about the country’s economic standing, is beginning to demand action. And policymakers see clearly the economic imperative of increasing the number of residents with postsecondary credentials. These five state-policy commitments point the way to turning what may seem unattainable into a must-win “mission possible” of making high standards achievable for all students.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Raising Graduation Rates In an Era of High Standards


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