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February 10, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 10

LSOE Study Sees Dip in High School Grad Rates

Researchers say reforms may have contributed to student attrition

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Fewer American students are reaching 10th grade and US high school graduation rates are showing major declines, especially in some of the nation's largest states, according to a study released last month by Lynch School of Education researchers.

Education reforms of recent decades may be contributing to this "constriction in the education pipeline," say the BC researchers, who see an association between the increased attrition between grades 9 and 10 with the advent of minimum competency testing, the academic standards movement and high stakes testing.

The study, "The Education Pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000," by Boisi Professor of Education George Madaus, Prof. Walter Haney and Lisa Abrams, a research associate with LSOE's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy, analyzes educational statistics collected by the federal government to examine the education pipeline and identify key transition points through which students progress, or fail to progress, from kindergarten through the grades to high school graduation. [The report is available via the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy web site.]

Examining enrollment and graduation rates nationally and by state, the researchers found that over the last 30 years the rate at which students disappear between grades 9 and 10 has tripled. Nationally, 440,000 9th grade students (11.4 percent) in 1998-1999 did not show up as enrolled in 10th grade in 1999-2000. As recently as the mid-1980s, the national attrition rate between 9th and 10th grades was at slightly less than 5 percent.

As evidence of the education pipeline's constriction, the authors point to a "bulge" in 9th grade enrollments relative to those of 8th grade the previous year. This trend strongly suggests that increasing numbers of students are being flunked to repeat 9th grade, they say - a practice that has been shown to discourage students from completing high school.

"These findings are quite disturbing," said Haney. "Despite all of the high-sounding rhetoric about reforming our schools, the data on enrollment and graduation demonstrate that many states hold students back in 9th grade, encourage dropping out, and graduate a declining percentage of students.

"It appears that the pressures of high stakes tests are generating educational strategies that deform, rather than reform the system for the customers of our public education system - our children," said Haney.

"Despite setting a national goal of a high school graduation rate of 90 percent in 1994, only two states - New Jersey and Wisconsin - met that goal in the academic year 2000-2001. Shockingly, there were 24 states with graduation rates of 75 percent or less."

At the other end of the pipeline, the BC researchers found different, and potentially encouraging trends. Kindergarten enrollment nationally has grown: Before 1970, only about 60 percent of students started school in kindergarten; by 2000, that number grew to about 90 percent. Haney says that while compulsory school attendance laws may have contributed to this rise, a growing recognition of the importance of early childhood education is an even stronger factor.

Most states do not report data on rates at which students are flunked to repeat grades and state data on dropouts have been shown to be unreliable. The best way of studying rates of student progress through high school graduation is by analyzing annual data on enrollments and graduation, according to the researchers.

The study outlines several explanations for the drop-off between grades 9 and 10 and in high school graduation rates: Students may move to different states, or other countries; they may leave the public school system to attend private schools or be home-schooled - or they may die. But none of these possibilities can explain the broad trends in public school enrollments and graduates previously recounted, say the authors.

Acknowledging the difficulty in making cause-and-effect inferences concerning such complex social systems, the researchers use statistical and anecdotal evidence they say shows a link between the attrition trends and education reform initiatives in the 1970s, '80s and '90s. While each period of reform had its own characteristics, say the researchers, their collective impact on students and schools has been to demand progress without offering much of a means to achieve it.

Haney, a frequent critic of standards-based reforms adopted by many public school systems during the past decade, and his colleagues say pressure to demonstrate academic improvement via high-stakes testing has led some schools to essentially marginalize, or even exclude, lower-performing students.

However, rather than reiterate their concerns about these and other reforms, the authors say the emphasis in their study is "that whatever has been causing the constriction in the high school pipeline - the increasing rate at which students are being flunked to repeat grade 9 and the falling rate at which students are graduating from high school - this development should be viewed as a real national emergency.

"When students are squeezed out of the high school pipeline and do not even graduate from high school, this has dire consequences not just for these young people but for society as a whole," the researchers write, noting recent research indicating that people who fail to graduate from high school are far more likely to spend time in prison.

Haney, interviewed last week, said the study has been "received pretty favorably" in the media and elsewhere. Discussing the possible political impact of the report, given its release in a presidential election year, Haney pointed out that the data examines trends going back years, and even decades.

"Our position on educational policy and testing issues is quite clear by now," he said. "But while we make no secret of our views, the most important thing is that in this report we have tried to look at all available educational data to find out, quite simply, what has happened to the flows of students through US public schools over three decades.

"The results, and what they may portend for our young people, deserve our full attention and discussion." -Sean Smith

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