Education Week - June 13, 2018 - 7
LOCATING THE SCHOOLS
WITH LOW GRAD RATES
Nationwide, there were 2,425 high
schools where fewer than two-thirds
of students graduated on time
between 2015 and 2016. States
varied widely in the numbers of
these schools, from two in Vermont
to 434 in California. More than half
of these schools (56 percent) were
regular high schools as opposed
to alternative, special education,
or vocational schools.
MD NJ 12
30 DE 6
SOURCE: "Building a Grad Nation"
More High Schools Found to Have Low Graduation Rates
By Catherine Gewertz
Even as the nation's high school
graduation rate reaches an all-time
high of 84 percent, a troubling phenomenon is taking shape: The number of schools with low graduation
rates is actually growing.
The change is reported in the
latest version of "Building a Grad
Nation," an annual report that
tracks high school graduation. Between 2015 and 2016, the number
of schools defined by federal law
as having a low graduation rate-
schools of 100 or more students
where fewer than two-thirds earn
diplomas in four years-rose from
2,249 to 2,425. That's 176 more
schools qualifying as graduation
danger zones in one year.
Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, one of the
report's co-authors, said that most
of the change is explained by a rise
in the number of alternative schools.
In 2016, the most recent year of
data available, there were 878 alternative high schools with low graduation rates. Only two years earlier,
in 2014, there were 677.
Shifts like those are important to
note as the country struggles to understand how well its high schools
are serving students. That's not easy,
as cause for celebration and skepticism compete for attention.
Federal data released in December show the highest graduation
rate in history. But investigations
and audits are stacking up that
show schools, districts, or states
playing various games with their
Part of that picture is a question
about the extent to which high
schools move struggling students
into alternative schools. They
might do so with the best of intentions, believing that those students
will be better served, Balfanz said.
But they can also benefit by scrubbing their books of students who
might drag down graduation rates.
"Part of the underlying story is
that at some level, graduation-rate
accountability has propelled the
growth of alternative schools," Balfanz said.
Sending struggling students to
alternative schools creates a "hyperconcentration of need" that makes ontime graduation even more unlikely,
Federal law allows states to factor
five- and six-year graduation rates
into their accountability systems, to
recognize the added time that many
struggling students need to finish.
But the law requires states to assign
less weight to five- and six-year rates
than to their four-year rate.
The longer timelines are a better way to evaluate how alternative
schools are doing with a challenging student population, said Russell
Rumberger, who studies such issues
as a professor emeritus of education
at the University of California-Santa
Even so, he said, policymakers
should keep an eye on the rise in the
number of alternative high schools.
"They vary a lot in quality, and they
account for a disproportionate number of dropouts," he said.
The growing role of alternative settings is only one piece of a changing
landscape of high school completion.
"Building a Grad Nation" also points
to another shift worth watching:
Good graduation rates can mask
large numbers of students who aren't
graduating on time.
One analysis in the report looks at
schools with graduation rates higher
than the national average of 84 percent. It asks what proportion of students at those schools earn diplomas
in four years instead or five or six
and turns up some surprising results.
Some schools considered high-performing are harboring large numbers
of students who won't earn diplomas
in four years.
In 13 states, more than half the students who don't graduate in four years
are enrolled in schools with graduation rates of 84 percent or more, according to "Grad Nation." In Iowa,
64 percent of the students who don't
graduate on time go to such schools.
It's 59 percent in Arkansas and
53 percent in Kentucky.
One driver behind those numbers is
demographic shifts in inner-ring suburbs that bring more low-income families into schools that aren't prepared
to support them, Balfanz said.
Research has shown that certain
types of schools-charter, alternative, and virtual schools-tend to
have lower graduation rates than
traditional high schools. But this
latest report shows surprising variations in that picture.
Looking at low-graduation-rate
schools and students in three states
offers an example of the variation:
* In Georgia, 28 percent of the students who don't graduate in four years
attend regular or vocational schools
with low graduation rates. Three
percent go to alternative schools, and
none attends virtual schools.
* By contrast, in Florida, only 4 percent of the students who don't finish
on time attend regular or vocational
schools. Thirty-one percent are in alternative schools, and 1 percent are in
schools for special education students.
* Michigan's distribution of students who don't graduate on time is
very different. Twenty-four percent
of its students who don't graduate in
four years are in alternative schools,
while 8 percent attend regular or vocational schools, and 6 percent are in
The message in the numbers, the report's authors write, is that each state
should examine its own patterns of
schools with low graduation rates.
That's especially important as the
Every Student Succeeds Act shifts
more responsibility for school improvement from the federal level to
the states, said John Bridgeland, another "Grad Nation" co-author.
"States can't just look at their overall graduation rates and leave it at
that," he said. "They have to embrace
this challenge and dig deeper into
their data to see what's actually happening, school to school and district
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