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					                                                                           Education Policy Brief
                Improving High School Graduation Rates
                                                 Kylie R. Stanley and Jonathan A. Plucker
                                                          VOLUME 6, NU MBER 7, SUMME R 200 8

                                                                                                          prevent students from leaving school
CONTENTS                                                     INTRODUCTION                                 before graduation are summarized. First,
                                                                                                          we examine characteristics of those who
  Introduction .......................................1
                                                             On May 9, 2008, the Center for Evalua-       drop out of high school and the reasons
  Who is Dropping Out? ......................1               tion & Education Policy (CEEP) issued        they discontinue their schooling early.
                                                             the Education Policy Brief, Calculating      The brief will then highlight direct inter-
  Why are Students Dropping Out? ....2
                                                             High School Graduation Rates. In that        vention programs, efforts which are pri-
  Gradual Disengagement ...................3                 report the importance of accurate and        marily aimed at reaching at-risk students
                                                             reliable high school graduation data was     and helping them through school.
  Direct Intervention Programs...........3                   considered, various graduation rate cal-     Finally, holistic, school-wide reform
  Policy Perspective                                         culation methods and the history behind      efforts and their connection to dropout
    Dr. Ethan Yazzie-Mintz ..................5               the use of particular methodologies were     prevention will be considered.
                                                             examined, and the strong nationwide
  School-Wide Implementation                                 trend towards the use of a cohort tracking
  of the Three R’s ..................................7       system was discussed. Additionally, the
  America's Promise Alliance...............8                 policy brief highlighted the value of a      WHO IS DROPPING OUT?
                                                             high school diploma both to the graduat-
  Conclusions/Recommendations .......9                       ing individual and to his or her commu-      A large body of research indicates that
                                                             nity.                                        students from particular backgrounds or
                                                                                                          who possess particular characteristics are
  End Notes .........................................10      The Diplomas Count 2008 report asserts       more likely to drop out than others. In
                                                             that 6,829 students are lost from high       particular, minority students and students
  Web Resources .................................12
                                                             schools in the United States each day;       from low-income families are less likely
                                                             Indiana alone is responsible for 127 of      to complete high school than their peers.
                                                             those students.1 “Loss” in the context of    The cumulative graduation rate in Indi-
                                                             the Diplomas Count 2008 report is            ana for the 2006-07 school year was 76
                                                             defined as students failing to graduate      percent. However, graduation rates were
                                                             with a standard high school diploma          lowest in urban and rural areas with high
UPCOMING POLICY BRIEFS . .                                   within four years. For these dropout stu-    concentrations of poverty. Moreover,
                                                             dents, the financial impact of their deci-   while Caucasian students had an average
   Arguments and Evidence: The                               sion will be significant as adults. In       graduation rate of 80 percent, African
   Debate over Collective Bargaining’s                       February 2007, the Alliance for Excel-       American, Hispanic, and Native Ameri-
   Role in Public Education                                  lence in Education published a report        can students had graduation rates of 57,
   The Research on Single-Sex Class-                         indicating that “households headed by a      63, and 70 percent, respectively.3
   rooms                                                     high school graduate accumulate ten
   The Research on Multi-Age Class-                          times more wealth than households            This graduation disparity among students
   rooms                                                     headed by a high school dropout.”2           from differing socio-economic and
                                                                                                          demographic backgrounds is also
                                                             In this brief, “Improving High School        reflected at the national level.4 The
                                                             Graduation Rates,” the significance of       National Dropout Prevention Center
                                                             high school dropout trends is further        (NDPC) estimated that the overall
                                                             addressed and programs which aim to          national graduation rate in 2001 was 70
percent. In 2001, Caucasian and Asian          and a lack of resources. According to           respondents agreed that there was at least
students had the highest graduation rates      their report, Locating the Dropout Crisis,      one adult in their school who cared about
at 72 and 79 percent respectively; accord-     “Majority minority schools with more            them and knew them well. The study
ing to the NDPC only 54 percent of             resources successfully promote students         also found that students feel the highest
Native American students, 51 percent of        to senior status at the same rate as major-     level of support from their teachers (81
African American students, and 52 per-         ity white schools.”8 These results sug-         percent), but conversely the students feel
cent of Hispanic students graduated high       gest that a dedicated application of            the lowest level of support from admin-
school that year.5 A study by the National     resources could lower dropout rates;            istrators (60 percent).10 In a study con-
Center on Secondary Education and              they also indicate that the dropout crisis      ducted for the Bill & Melinda Gates
Transition (NCSET) at the University of        is not merely a social phenomenon and           Foundation, The Silent Epidemic - Per-
Minnesota found that students with lim-        that school-based solutions can posi-           spectives of High School Dropouts,
ited English-speaking skills and/or par-       tively impact graduation rates.                 researchers worked solely with students
ents with high levels of mobility are also                                                     who had left high school early and found
at high risk of dropping out of school, as                                                     that only 56 percent of students had felt
are students with a history of behavior                                                        they could go to a school staff member
problems.6 Additionally, NCSET noted           WHY ARE STUDENTS DROPPING                       about school problems. Only 41 percent
that males are more likely than females to     OUT?                                            felt they could go to a staff member
drop out of high school, and students in                                                       about personal problems.11 While all
larger high schools are at a higher risk of    Relationships, relevance, and rigor are         students need to feel as if they are cared
leaving school than students in smaller        known as the new three R’s of education         about and that their presence in school is
high schools.6                                 reform. These foundational premises             valued, this is particularly true for stu-
                                               assert the importance that students must        dents already at risk for dropping out.
                                               feel a part of the school community and
                                               have a strong relationship with one or
                                               more adults in the school. Secondly, the
                                               students must understand that what they         Relevance
     These results [from                       are learning is connected, i.e., is relevant,   It is no secret that in this 21st century
 Johns Hopkins University]                     to something larger than the present time       world many schools still conduct classes
  suggest that a dedicated                     and place. And thirdly, students must be        in a 19th century fashion. Many facets of
  application of resources                     challenged intellectually by a rigorous         education in America have changed little
                                               curriculum. Research consistently indi-         over the past few centuries; most schools
 could lower dropout rates;                    cates that a lack of at least one of these      still operate on an agrarian schedule,
   they also indicate that                     factors plays a large role in a student’s       classrooms are still usually composed of
    the dropout crisis is                      decision to leave school. While some            rows of individual desks facing forward,
     not merely a social                       students indicate leaving high school for       and passive learning remains the norm.
   phenomenon and that                         personal reasons such as financial hard-        As a result, many students report feeling
  school-based solutions                       ship, becoming a parent, or caring for          as if their high school education is not
                                               another member of their family, these           connected to their post-secondary future.
    can positively impact                      same students also indicate that they may       In The Silent Epidemic, the authors
      graduation rates.                        have stayed if they had received more           report that four out of five students said
                                               support from adults in the school, bol-         they thought school needed more real-
                                               stering the premise that strong school          world learning experiences and/or exper-
                                               relationships are a key component of            imental learning opportunities.12 HSSSE
                                               improving graduation rates.9                    asked students why they attend school
A study conducted by Balfanz & Legters .
                                                                                               and most of them (73 percent) responded
(2004) at the Center for Research on the                                                       that it was because they wanted to get a
Education of Students Placed At Risk                                                           degree and go to college or because of
(CRESPAR) at Johns Hopkins Univer-             Relationships                                   their peers and friends (68 percent). Rel-
sity found that schools with the lowest                                                        atively few students indicated that they
levels of promotion (from freshmen to          The High School Survey of Student               went because they enjoy school (34 per-
senior status) were not necessarily            Engagement (HSSSE) studies the levels           cent) or because of what they learn in
schools with the high levels of minority       of student engagement of over 80,000            school (39 percent).13 Furthermore, 75
students. Rather, schools with the weak-       high school students across the nation.         percent of HSSSE respondents said they
est promotion power—the rate at which          HSSSE is administered to high school            have been bored in school because the
a high school is able to advance students      students still in school and thus can pro-      material they were learning was not
through grade levels and to graduation—        vide a benchmark for measuring rela-            interesting and 39 percent said they have
were schools with high levels of poverty       tionships. A total of 78 percent of             been bored because the material was not

                                              IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 2
relevant to them. Students recognize that       feel unchallenged. In fact, one study         and feel overwhelmed by the volume of
high school is one step to achieving their      found that 60 percent of future dropouts      make-up work necessary to remain on
larger goals, but many students fail to see     could be identified as early as Grade 6, at   track with their peers. Also, it should be
that step itself as a valuable academic         which point students who were failing         remembered that this transition is a cru-
experience. A study by the Southern             either English or math or both, attending     cial relationship-building time; as noted
Regional Education Board (SREB),                school less than 80 percent of the time, or   earlier, students who fail to make connec-
which profiled nine high schools that           had received at least one out-of-school       tions with adults in the school commu-
have improved graduation rates, found           suspension were likely to drop out later      nity are more likely to feel unconnected
that all nine of the high schools have          in their schooling.17 Additionally, the       to the community and leave.
implemented programs which empha-               study noted that students with only mild
size the connections between high               but repeated behavior problems should         Prior to dropping out of high school, stu-
school and college and careers.14               also be considered at risk because these      dents have usually exhibited an array of
                                                instances of not paying attention, not        warning signs, including falling signifi-
                                                completing assignments, and talking           cantly behind in credit completion,
                                                back in class are signs of early disen-       chronic absenteeism, lack of enrollment
Rigor                                           gagement.18                                   in clubs and/or sports, and failing stan-
Although it is clear that many students                                                       dardized tests. Students exhibiting these
who drop out were struggling academi-                                                         signs feel overwhelmed by how far they
cally, they do not necessarily do so                                                          have dropped behind their peers and,
because school was too difficult. Rather,                                                     thus, decide to leave school. In addition,
surveys of high school dropouts suggest                                                       the HSSSE report concludes that there is
the opposite. According to The Silent                                                         an “engagement gap” that schools need
Epidemic, a study by Bridgeland et. al.,                                                      to pay attention to: females are more
35 percent of students said they were                One study found that                     likely to be engaged in school than their
failing one or more courses when they                60 percent of future                     male counterparts, white and Asian stu-
dropped out, but 43 percent of students               dropouts could be                       dents report more engagement than other
also said that they had missed too many               identified as early                     racial ethnic groups, and students who
days of school and could not catch up.15                                                      are not eligible for free/reduced-price
These numbers suggest that many stu-
                                                         as Grade 6                           lunch are more engaged than students
dents were not failing simply due to a                                                        who are eligible.22 Even before students
lack of ability, but rather a lack of atten-                                                  leave school, their likelihood of drop-
dance. A possible explanation for                                                             ping out can be assessed in terms of their
chronic absenteeism can be found in                                                           engagement with the school community.
other responses: 69 percent of those                                                          Bridging this “engagement gap” could
same students said their classes had been                                                     be critical to preventing students from
uninspiring, and 80 percent said they did       Other studies have found that the transi-     dropping out of school.
one hour or less of homework per night.         tion between middle and high school is a
Finally, 67 percent said they would have        critical point at which many future drop-
worked harder had it been expected of           outs are lost. A study by the Consortium
them, and 70 percent said they were             on Chicago School Research found that         DIRECT INTERVENTION
capable of graduating had they tried.16         students who have obtained a sufficient       PROGRAMS
HSSSE results reveal a similar sentiment        number of credits to be considered “on
among current high school students: two         track” to graduate by the end of Grade 9      Although a great deal of research has
out of three students are bored in school       are far more likely to actually graduate      been done to evaluate which students
at least once a day, and 32 percent said        high school than those students who have      drop out and why they do so, the research
the work was not challenging enough.            already fallen behind by this point.19 A      addressing which programs are most
                                                study conducted at the University of          effective at keeping students in school is
                                                Michigan found that the rigor of math         less established. What is clear, however,
                                                courses correlates with dropout rates; 18     is that schools must work to implement
GRADUAL DISENGAGEMENT                           percent of students who dropped out had       the three R’s directly within both the
                                                taken no math during their first two years    immediate at-risk population and the stu-
Studies have revealed that the decision to      of high school.20 Additionally, school        dent body at large. These direct interven-
leave their schooling is not a sudden one       attendance is a heavy predictor of risk       tion programs, aimed first at students
for high school students; rather, dropouts      level.21 Students with poor attendance        most at risk of dropping out, can take
experience a gradual process whereby            demonstrate disengagement from the            vastly different forms, ranging from
they fail to form meaningful relation-          school community; these students are          alternative schools to mentor programs
ships, become disengaged in school, and         likely to fall far behind in coursework       within the normal school setting.

                                               IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 3
                                               Education Policy Brief. It is important to   ECS researchers noted, however, that
                                               note here, however, that alternative pro-    legislators should be sure to clearly
Alternative Education                          grams have been used as a means of           define “habitually truant” and that stu-
                                               addressing the needs of at-risk students     dents should not be prevented from
Alternative education experienced a            for over three decades.                      attending driver’s education.26 For a list
period of intense growth in the 1970s and                                                   of states which connect driving privi-
continues to be a viable option for stu-                                                    leges to academics, see Table 1.
dents today. Students served by schools
offering alternative programs are varied,      Incentive/Disincentive                       Another program aimed at preventing
but alternative education is often noted       Programs                                     dropouts directly targets teen parents.
to work with students considered at-risk                                                    Some states have created assistance pro-
to not graduate in a traditional environ-      In an attempt to dissuade students from      grams that provide financial bonuses and
ment. The alternative program may exist        dropping out, many states have enacted       support for teen parents who choose to
as a school-within-a-school, a separate        punitive laws such as the revocation of a    complete school. These programs condi-
entity, or as an after-school program.         student’s driver’s license and/or work       tion the support on continued attendance,
Moreover, the ways in which alternative        permit if the student drops out of school    performance, and completion. The U.S.
education is funded and administered           without a legally acceptable reason (such    Department of Education’s What Works
vary widely from state to state. In the        as financial hardship or illness). Accord-   Clearinghouse found that this type of
2000-01 school year, there were approx-        ing to the Education Commission of the       financial incentive had a positive effect
imately 11,000 alternative schools and         States (ECS), 27 states currently imple-     on keeping students in school.27
over 600,000 students attending alterna-       ment sanctions on driving privileges
tive schools in the U.S.22 The Indiana         connected to student attendance and/or
Department of Education Web site offers        behavior. Individual states determine the
that the 291 alternative education pro-        requirements, which include, for exam-       Mentoring/Monitoring
grams across the state exist specifically      ple, that students remain in school (do      Programs
to address the needs of at-risk students.      not drop out), have satisfactory atten-
The Web site also outlines several state       dance, adequately progress though            Mentoring programs are a popular strat-
requirements for alternative schools. For      school at a reasonable pace, and do not      egy to help students make important aca-
instance, the maximum teacher-to-stu-          have behavior problems (suspensions,         demic transitions and build relationships
dent ratio is 1:15. Additionally, alterna-     expulsions, etc.). Indiana’s law estab-      with teachers and administrators. Theo-
tive programs in Indiana must have a           lished by HEA 1794 in 2005 states that       retically, students who were at risk
small student base, clearly defined mis-       “a driver’s license or a learner’s permit    would be identified on the basis of many
sion and discipline codes, and high            will not be issued to an individual under    of the indicators mentioned earlier
expectations of its students.23 The            18 who is considered a habitual truant, is   (absenteeism, grades, socio-economic
research regarding the function, form,         under at least a second suspension from      status, behavioral problems, etc.) and
and efficacy of alternative education in       school for the year, is under expulsion      these students would be paired with a
Indiana and nationwide is vast, and the        from school, or has withdrawn from           counselor, teacher, or administrator with
Center for Evaluation & Education Pol-         school, for a reason other than financial    whom they meet regularly. This mentor
icy will explore alternative education as      hardship.”25 That same law also prevents     would make sure the student felt valued
an independent topic in an upcoming            dropouts from obtaining a work permit.       and comfortable in their new environ-
                                                                                            ment. Additionally, the mentor would
                                                                                            monitor the student’s progress academi-
                                                                                            cally and step in to address problems
TABLE 1. States with Sanctions on Driving Privileges                                        with the student. The Check & Connect
                                                                                            Model, developed at the University of
 Alabama                     Iowa                        Oklahoma
                                                                                            Minnesota, is one model that employs
 Arkansas                    Kansas                      Oregon                             the mentor/monitoring system. The pro-
 California                  Kentucky                    Rhode Island                       gram places heavy emphasis on relation-
 Delaware                    Louisiana                   South Carolina                     ships with both the student and the
                                                                                            parents.28 The What Works Clearing-
 Florida                     Mississippi                 Tennessee
                                                                                            house found that the Check & Connect
 Georgia                     Nevada                      Texas                              Model had potentially positive effects in
 Idaho                       New Mexico                  Virginia                           keeping students in school and helping
 Illinois                    North Carolina              Wisconsin                          students to progress through school.29 A
                                                                                            mentoring/monitoring program could
 Indiana                     Ohio                        West Virginia
                                                                                            easily be created or replicated on either a
 Source:                                                                        small or a large scale.

                                              IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 4
                                           Policy Perspective
                                                              THE ROAD TO HIGHER GRADUATION RATES IS BUILT ON
                                                                          ENGAGING ALL STUDENTS
                                                                                           Ethan Yazzie-Mintz
                                                        Why won't they bring what we are                  Step 3: Set a clear purpose for education in the
                                                        learning to life?                                 school, and be sure that this purpose is enacted
                                                                                                          by everybody in the school community. Often
                                                                   — HSSSE 2007 respondent
                                                                                                          schools point to their agreed-upon mission
                                                                                                          statement as the purpose for education; how-
                                                      Students from high schools across the country       ever, if the words and mission aren’t matched
                                                      participating in the High School Survey of Stu-     by structures and actions, the first ones to
                                                      dent Engagement (HSSSE) describe a culture          notice will be the students, who are likely to
                                                      of inattention to student views and inaction on     dis-engage.
                                                      student recommendations. The most prevalent         Step 4: Create structures and processes that
                                                      response provided to the open-response ques-        meet the learning needs of the students, not just
                                                      tion at the end of the survey expresses this sen-   the needs of the adults. Decisions in schools
                                                      timent: “I do not believe anyone will read this     are generally made by adults for students. An
  I can't stress enough that we want
                                                      and actually care.”                                 engaging school will ensure that students are a
  to learn, but the focus at our school
  is not on knowledge nearly as much                  Two-thirds of HSSSE respondents are bored at        part of decision-making processes and that
  as it is on letter grades.                          least every day (if not every class), more than     structures are continually refined to meet the
                                                      20% of respondents have considered dropping         learning needs of all students.
             — HSSSE 2007 respondent
                                                      out for a variety of reasons, and more than 40%     Step 5: Engage all students deeply and equally.
The academic and policy discussions about             disagree with the statement, “I am an important     There is a persistent and pernicious engage-
high school dropouts and graduation rates             part of my high school community”; in this          ment gap that mirrors the achievement gap.
focus almost exclusively on adults’ percep-           context, it is imperative that students’ voices     Students are reporting differential levels of
tions and beliefs about: students (their behav-       begin to play a more significant role in reforms    engagement by gender, race/ethnicity, aca-
ior, motivation, and attitudes), school               and restructuring.                                  demic track, eligibility for free/reduced lunch,
structures, and potential reforms. As with so                                                             and length of time in the school. To begin to
                                                      There are five action steps that schools and dis-
many reforms in education, the voices of those                                                            address improvement in graduation rates, all
                                                      tricts can take to begin to engage all students
most affected by the reforms are left unheard.                                                            students must be engaged deeply and equally.
                                                      on the road to improving graduation rates.
In fact, the keys to raising graduation rates lie
in understanding the beliefs, thoughts, and           Step 1: Know what the students think. Not
feelings of the students themselves.                  based on what we as adults assume students            I always wished at least one teacher
                                                      think, but based on what students themselves          would see a skill in me that seemed
As difficult as it is to get an accurate picture of                                                         extraordinary, or help to encourage
                                                      say. Talk to students, survey students, create
the graduation rate in high schools across the                                                              its growth.
                                                      focus groups to avoid the mismatch between
U.S., the more daunting—and critical—chal-
                                                      the perceptions of adults and the attitudes of                   — HSSSE 2007 respondent
lenge is to improve graduation rates. Recent
research paints a picture of a dropout problem
so broad in scope and pervasive in nature as to       Step 2: Believe what students say and care
make a solution seem nearly impossible.                                                                   Students are asking to be challenged, engaged,
                                                      about what students think. I often get asked, by
                                                                                                          interacted with, and valued. Engaging schools
                                                      both researchers and practitioners, “Can we
Balfanz and Legters (2004) identify schools                                                               will produce graduates ready for the rigors of
                                                      really trust what students say?”, suggesting
with particularly low graduation rates as                                                                 postsecondary education and the world of
                                                      that students’ words are not to be believed.
“dropout factories,” asserting intentionality on                                                          work—schools we may ultimately be able to
                                                      Schools that take students seriously will get
the part of these schools in producing drop-                                                              call “graduate factories.”
                                                      more serious students.
outs.1 Swanson (2008) concludes that “gradu-
ating from high school in America’s largest
cities amounts, essentially, to a coin toss,” sug-
                                                                             Dr. Ethan Yazzie-Mintz is the Director of the
gesting there is randomness to the chances of a                              High School Survey of Student Engagement
student graduating from high school in these
cities.2 The title of Time magazine’s cover                  1
story, “Dropout Nation” (Thornburgh, 2006),                    Balfanz, R., & Legters, N. (2004). Locating the dropout crisis. XXX, NY: Center for
                                                               Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk, Johns Hopkins University.
elevated dropping out to a national phenome-                 2 Swanson, C. B. (2008). Cities in crisis: A special analytic report on high school
non, some kind of perverse fad.
                                                               graduation. Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

                                                      IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 5
Another mentoring program is the Coca-         also implemented credit recovery pro-        existed in the American education sys-
Cola Valued Youth Program. Rather than         grams.33 Researchers note that it is         tem since 1969 when they were first
connecting at-risk students to faculty         important to not weaken the standards        implemented in Philadelphia.37 Pres-
members, the program encourages at-            but, rather, to strengthen them. Such pro-   ently, NCSET estimates that there are
risk students in high school to bond with      grams allow educators to identify at-risk    between 2,000 and 3,000 career acade-
and tutor at-risk students in elementary       students and then give students hope for     mies nationwide. The basic concept of
school. Created in 1984, the program           a timely graduation.                         the program is to structure small classes
was originally focused on individual                                                        with both academic and technical
school districts in the San Antonio,           As previously noted, high school fresh-      focuses around a particular career field.
Texas, area. However, the program has          men are at increased risk if they are        Included in the program is the progres-
since expanded and is being replicated         already behind in course work or do not      sion of classes with a cohort, the integra-
nationally. The program is centered on         make a successful transition into high       tion of outside experience, and regular
the beliefs that all students can learn and    school. In order to address such issues      field trips and guest speakers.38 This
all students are valuable; the hope is that    some high schools have mandated dou-         type of program is intended to connect
both the mentor and mentee of the pro-         ble-dosing of mathematics and English/       with students because of its real-world
gram will realize their self-worth and         language arts courses for struggling         relevance. The What Works Clearing-
feel purposeful. Researchers found that        ninth-graders.34 In this arrangement, stu-   house found that career academies have
the students enrolled in the program had       dents who are not proficient in either       the potential to keep students in school
lower dropout rates than comparison            reading or math spend twice the amount       and progressing through school.39
groups.30                                      of time in those courses than normally
                                               prescribed; this extra time is usually in    However, contrary to the What Works
In Indianapolis, Indiana, a new mentor-        place of an elective course. Using this      Clearinghouse findings, a recent study
based program was recently announced.          format enables students who may have         by Manpower Research Demonstration
The Common Goal Initiative is a part-          been unprepared for high school level        Research Corporation suggests that
nership between 11 Marion County               coursework to catch up to their peers.       career academies do help boost future
school districts and the Greater India-        Schools can identify students in need of     earnings, but do not prevent dropouts or
napolis Chamber of Commerce which              such remediation by using Grade 8 stan-      raise academic achievement while stu-
aims to raise graduation rates in the area     dardized examinations, grades, and           dents are in school. These conflicting
to at least 80 percent by 2011. Most of        teacher recommendations.                     findings indicate that more research on
the schools participating in the program                                                    the outcomes of career academies is nec-
currently have graduation rates at or                                                       essary.40
below 70 percent.31 The program is pre-
dominantly mentor-based, giving stu-           In-School Academies
dents identified as at-risk one-on-one
guidance and support. Additionally, the        Other high schools have focused on the       ALAS Program
program helps students with credit             entire freshmen cohort rather than just
recovery and provides social services as       struggling freshmen. Freshmen centers        Another program highlighted for its
needed. Funding for the program has            or academies have been established in        focus on Latino students is the Achieve-
been donated from many local busi-             some of the successful high schools high-    ment for Latinos Through Academic
nesses and foundations, including the          lighted by the SREB.35 These academies       Success (ALAS) program. The program
Pacers Foundation, which gave                  allow freshmen to remain with each other     was first funded through the U.S.
$500,000 in June 2008.32                       and the same set of teachers for the dura-   Department of Education’s Office of
                                               tion of the school year, thus strengthen-    Special Education Programs in 1990.
                                               ing relationships between individual         The core of the program is an emphasis
                                               students and the students and educators.     on increased problem-solving training,
Remediation                                    Bottoms and Anthony note that this acad-     counseling, and relationship-building
                                               emy format has also been used at a school    between the students of the program and
As mentioned above, many students              with a large Spanish-speaking popula-        faculty mentors.41 The students enrolled
drop out because they feel overwhelmed         tion. In this school all ESL students par-   in the program take blocks of classes
by how far they have fallen behind in the      ticipate together in double-doses of         together as a way to foster community.
number of classes missed and their lack        English and Algebra I. The school has        Additionally, an open line of communi-
of course completion credits. In their         found that this community bonding and        cation between the faculty mentor, the
study of schools improving graduation          intensive coursework has reduced Alge-       student, and the parents is viewed as a
rates, Bottoms and Anthony at SREB             bra I failures by 22 percent.36              key to success. The What Works Clear-
found that successful high schools had                                                      inghouse noted that the program had
formalized extra-help sessions for strug-      The career academy model has also            positive effects, such as keeping students
gling students in their school and had         shown promise. Career academies have         in school and helping them to progress

                                              IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 6
through school.42 The National Center             can be entirely successful in improving                   between the student and the educator that
on Secondary Education and Transition             graduation rates without a strong focus                   would be more lasting than the once per
noted that “program participants had              on relationships, relevance, and rigor.                   year meeting. HEA 1347-2006 also
lower rates of absenteeism, lower per-                                                                      addresses the issue of rigor. The Double-
centages of failed classes, and a higher          In 2006, Indiana legislators decided to                   Up for College program portion of the
proportion of credits (on track to gradu-         tackle the dropout crisis within the state                bill requires that high schools must offer
ate) when compared to nonpartici-                 and the result was several pieces of                      at least two dual credit courses and two
pants.”43                                         promising legislation, including House                    AP courses.45 This allows high school
                                                  Enrolled Act 1347-2006. One provision                     students to experience college-level
                                                  of the bill requires an annual review of                  work and receive college credit while
                                                  the student career plan,44 in which each                  still in high school. Additionally, a
SCHOOL-WIDE IMPLEMENTATION                        student sits down at least once a year                    tuition waiver is provided to low-income
OF THE THREE R’S                                  with a counselor or some other knowl-                     students so that lack of personal finances
                                                  edgeable educator and discusses their                     is not a deterrent. Another effort to
While programs which target at-risk stu-          current academic progress and future                      increase the rigor of high schools in Indi-
dents and populations are essential in            plans. If implemented successfully this                   ana was Public Law 105-2005, which
preventing dropouts and improving the             approach would give schools the oppor-                    eliminated the general diploma in Indi-
overall graduation rate of a school, there        tunity to reinforce to each individual stu-               ana and established Core 40 as the
is also a need for a shift in school-wide         dent the value of their future. It also has               default curriculum.46 For more details on
programs and philosophies. No school              the potential to create a relationship

TABLE 2. Strategies for Improving High School Graduation Rates Nationwide and in Indiana

                             # of States
          Strategy              with                       State Program Example                                   Implementation in Indiana
 Increasing the legal                        New Mexico sets “high school graduate” as the only        Legal dropout age in Indiana is 18; student may
 dropout age                     18          acceptable age for leaving high school; there are         withdraw at age 16 with permission of parents and
                                             exemptions for 17-year-olds with demonstrated             principal (conditional on financial hardship) [HEA
                                             financial hardship and gainful employment.                1794-2005]
 Driving sanctions               27          Tennessee conditions driving privileges on atten-         Driver’s license not permitted for students who are
                                             dance requirements and student behavior (as does          habitually truant, or on second suspension from
                                             Indiana), but also on satisfactory progress through       school, or on expulsion from school, or to students
                                             high school or GED course.                                who have left school before age 18 without demon-
                                                                                                       strating financial hardship [HEA 1794-2005]
 Alternative education           50          Arkansas passed legislation requiring every school        Alternative education programs in Indiana which
                                             and district to provide and recommend when neces-         meet the definition per Indiana legislation are eligi-
                                             sary alternative education; an Arkansas Pygmalion         ble to receive an additional $750 per enrolled stu-
                                             Commission on Nontraditional Education was cre-           dent [IC 20-20-33]
                                             ated to focus on changes in school climate for at-
                                             risk students [AC 6-15-1005]
 Career academies                47          California Partnership Academies are models which         School Flex allows students in Grades 11 and 12 to
                                             group students Grades 10-12 with teachers and             enroll in career education or work at place of
                                             other students and focus on both college prepara-         employment during the school day [HEA 1794-
                                             tion and a career theme; the academies have been          2005]; funding formula for technical education
                                             proven to improve attendance, graduation, and col-        rewards enrollment in high-demand areas of
                                             lege matriculation rates [AB 3104-1983, SB 605-           employment
                                             1087, SB 44-1993]
 Dual enrollment/credit          38          The Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) in            Double-Up for college program requires IN high
                                             Colorado requires high schools to inform students         schools to offer minimum of 2 AP courses and 2
                                             of their right to take at least one course up to a full   dual credit courses; students eligible for free and
                                             load at a local college or university and received        reduced lunch receive tuition waivers [HEA 1347-
                                             dual credit; the state is responsible for tuition         2006]
 Career/college counseling       30          North Carolina legislation inserts “dropout preven-       Annual review of student career plan required;
                                             tion” into the description for the job of high school     counseling on credit recovery must be offered to
                                             guidance counselor [SB 571- 2006]                         students not on track to graduate [HEA 1347-2006]

                                                IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 7
the legislation passed to deter high                                                         finally, there are efforts to align the cur-
school dropouts in Indiana, see Table 2.                                                     ricula with state and local standards and
                                               Project-Based Learning                        increase the strength of the curriculum.50
In The Silent Epidemic, dropouts sug-                                                        Some reviews of the program noted sub-
gested to researchers that they would          Responding to student reports and             stantial improvements in attendance
prefer smaller classes where more inter-       related research, the Bill & Melinda          rates, graduation rates, and performance
action with fellow students and the            Gates Foundation supported the devel-         and standardized examinations.51 Not all
instructor was possible.47 The annual          opment of a new type of high school           reviews of the program have found con-
survey report by HSSSE echoes similar          which would do away with traditional          sistently positive results, however, and
findings: students were most excited in        passive learning techniques and instead       more studies are needed.
the classroom when they were engaged           center on collaboration and projects. The
in interactive learning with their peers.48    result was the New Tech High School
Some of the highest ranked activities          model, in which schools address the need
included discussions/debates, group            for a new type of interactive learning.       AMERICA’S PROMISE ALLIANCE
projects, presentations, and role playing.     The schools are small communities with-
Students ranked teacher lecture as the         out the traditional arrangement of desks      Many of the principles of the three R’s
least engaging form of learning; how-          and blackboards; rather, the school tends     can be seen in the five ingredients for
ever, this passive instructional method        to be set-up more like a place of business    success listed by America’s Promise
still permeates many American class-           with offices and corridors for group          Alliance. Born out of President Clinton’s
rooms. Acknowledging the views and             work. There is a 1:1 ratio of computers to    Summit for America’s Future in 1997,
opinions of students is a necessary step       students and the school work is project-      America’s Promise Alliance (APA) was
towards preventing dropouts and ensur-         based. Textbooks are not regularly used       originally chaired by retired General
ing academic success (see Policy Per-          in the school, and teachers act more as       Colin Powell and is currently chaired by
spective on page 5).                           facilitators of projects because learning     his wife, Alma Powell. The organization
                                               is student-driven and not teacher-driven.     hopes to reach 15 million disadvantaged
                                               Students for the 27 schools currently in      youth by 2010. The five ingredients to
                                               operation are chosen through a lottery        success include caring adults, safe
                                               system and many of the students are eth-      places, healthy starts (proper nutrition),
                                               nic minorities and/or qualify for free/       effective education, and opportunities to
                                               reduced priced lunch. There will be six       serve others.52 Three of the promises, as
                                               New Tech High Schools operating in            they are referred to by the organiza-
                                               Indiana during the 2008-09 school year.       tion—caring adults, effective education,
                                               Yet, despite having students who would        and opportunities to serve others—can
                                               normally be considered at-risk, New           be directly linked to relationships, rigor,
                                               Tech High Schools graduate nearly 100         and relevance. Yet, made obvious by the
    While programs which                       percent of their students and nine out of     complementary promises, APA believes
    target at-risk students                    ten students attend a college or univer-      that students must feel safe in their aca-
     and populations are                       sity following high school. The colle-        demic environment and must have
    essential in preventing                    giate matriculation rates of the New Tech     access to quality nutrition and healthcare
                                               High School model suggest that the tran-      in order for success to be achieved. Part
   dropouts and improving                      sition to new types of education can be       of the APA’s mission is to facilitate coop-
    the overall graduation                     done successfully.49                          eration among educators, research cen-
   rate of a school, there is                                                                ters, and policymakers so that various
   also a need for a shift in                                                                entities can come together to provide
    school-wide programs                                                                     solid support to at-risk students. In pur-
      and philosophies.                        First Things First                            suit of this goal, the APA is hosting sum-
                                                                                             mits in all 50 states to raise awareness
                                               The First Things First initiative began in    and a sense of urgency. The Indianapolis
                                               Kansas City, Kansas, and currently oper-      Dropout Prevention Leadership Summit
                                               ates in 70 schools in nine districts across   will be co-convened by the United Way
                                               the nation. The comprehensive school          of Central Indiana and the Indiana Youth
                                               reform model places heavy emphasis on         Institute on November 18, 2008, at the
                                               the three R’s for academic success. The       University of Indianapolis. The summit
                                               model has three main components: first,       in Indiana will bring together multiple
                                               a small community of up to 350 students;      organizations and state entities in the
                                               secondly, a family advocate system pairs      hopes of improving local and statewide
                                               each student with a staff member; and         graduation rates.

                                              IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 8
                                               laws enacted in Indiana, help to encour-
CONCLUSIONS AND                                age large-scale change, but for true          AUTHORS
RECOMMENDATIONS                                change to occur these ideas must be
                                               embraced at the level of individual com-      Kylie R. Stanley
                                               munities.                                     ( is a
Conclusion                                                                                   Research Assistant at the Center for
                                                                                             Evaluation & Education Policy.
There are clear populations of students
who are considered to be at high risk of       Conclusion                                    Jonathan A. Plucker
dropping out of school. These students                                                       ( is Director of
most often are minority, low-income,           A majority of students responding to the      the Center for Evaluation & Education
ESL, have parents with high mobility,          HSSSE survey said that they were bored        and Professor of Educational Psychol-
chronically absent, and/or have consis-        at least once every day. A total of 75 per-   ogy and Cognitive Science at Indiana
tently exhibited mild to severe behav-         cent of respondents said that the material    University.
ioral problems.                                they are learning in high school is not
                                               interesting and 39 percent said it was not
Recommendation                                 relevant to them. Students overwhelm-
                                               ingly indicated preferences for interac-      ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Educators should establish programs            tive learning methods that run contrary
which identify at-risk and struggling stu-     to traditional lecture-style classrooms.      The authors of this educational policy
dents early, ideally in middle school or       At the end of the HSSSE survey, when          brief would like to thank the following
no later than the student’s freshman year      the students are presented with an open-      people for their contributions: Nathan
of high school. Multiple avenues for           ended question, many students felt as if      Burroughs, Research Associate at the
addressing at-risk students are possible       their comments and suggestions would          Center for Evaluation & Education Pol-
including partnering students with a           go unheard and/or be ignored.                 icy; Megan Musser, Administrative
mentor/monitor and enrolling students in                                                     Assistant at the Center for Evaluation &
remediation. The key is that these stu-        Recommendation                                Education Policy; Terry Spradlin,
dents are identified before they fall too                                                    Associate Director for Education Policy,
far behind their peers.                        It is impossible to improve student satis-    Center for Evaluation & Education Pol-
                                               faction in education without listening to     icy; and Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, Director
                                               students first. Student input should be       of the High School Survey for Student
                                               highly regarded and responses should be       Engagement, Center for Evaluation &
Conclusion                                     formed accordingly. Despite prevalent         Education Policy.
                                               stereotypes, most students in surveys
Relationships, relevance, and rigor are        have indicated a desire for more chal-
known as the new three R’s of education        lenging academic work. The Southern
reform. These foundational premises            Regional Board of Education noted that
assert that students must feel they are a      of the successful high schools profiled,
part of the community and have a strong        most raised expectations and were still
relationship with one or more adults in        succeeding in improving graduation
the school, must feel as if what they are      rates; students rose to meet the higher
learning is connected to something larger      expectations.
than the present time and place, and must
be challenged intellectually. Every study
reviewed for this brief indicated that a
lack of at least one of these factors
played a large role in a student’s decision
to leave school.

The three R’s are components of an over-
all philosophy of education that must be
embraced by individual schools so that
they encourage the principles among all
of the teachers and staff in the school
community. State legislation, such as the

                                              IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 9
                                                         2008, from         32. Ford, M. (2008). Pacers Foundation con-
END NOTES                                                hstw/publications/briefs/                            tributes $500,000 towards Common Goal.
                                                         05V14_ResearchBrief_raising_graduation_              Retrieved on June 23, 2008, from http://
1. Diplomas Count 2008: School to college:
                                                      15. Bridgeland, op. cit.                                NR%20CG%20PACERS%202008_0603%
   Can state P-16 councils ease the transition?
   (nd). Education Week. Retrieved June 6,            16. Ibid.
   2008, from                                                               33. Bottoms
                                                      17. Balfanz, R., Herzog, L., & MacIver, D.
   2008/06/05/index.html                                                                                  34. Bottoms, op. cit.
                                                          (2007). Preventing student disengagement
2. Hidden benefits: The impact of high school             and keeping students on the graduation          35. Ibid.
   graduation on household wealth. (2007).                track in high-poverty middle-grades             36. Ibid.
   Alliance for Excellence in Education.                  schools: Early identification and effective
   Retrieved February 29, 2008, from http://                                                              37. Lehr, op. cit.
                                                          interventions. Retrieved on May 27, 2008,             from           38. Ibid.
   hiddenbenefits.pdf                                     bersSpeak/Article-MacIver.pdf                   39. What Works Clearinghouse, op. cit.
3. Indiana’s graduation rate. (2008).                 18. Balfanz, op. cit.                               40. Kemple, J., & Willner, C. (2008). Career
   Retrieved May 27, 2008, from http://                                                                       academies: Long-term impacts on labor
                                                      19. Allensworth, E., & Easton, J. (2005). On-                                                                         market outcomes, educational attainment,
                                                          track indicator as a predictor of high school
4. Orfield, G., Losen, D., Wald, J., & Swanson,           graduation. Consortium on Chicago School            and transitions to adulthood. New York:
   C. (2004). Losing our future: How minority             Research. Retrieved on May 27, 2008, from           Manpower Research Demonstration
   youth are being left behind by the gradua-              Research Corporation.
   tion rate crisis. Retrieved February 4, 2008,          tions.php?pub_id=10                             41. Lehr, op. cit.
                                                      20. Lee, V., & Burkam, D. (2003). Dropping out      42. What Works Clearinghouse, op. cit.
                                                          of high school: The role of school organiza-
                                                                                                          43. Lehr, op. cit.
5. Reimer, M., & Smink, J. (2005). Informa-               tion and structure. University of Michigan.
   tion about the school dropout issue. Clem-             Retrieved on May 27, 2008, from http://         44. Indiana’s High School Dropout Crisis. (nd).
   son, SC: National Dropout Prevention                               Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
   Center, Clemson University.                            ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/                    Retrieved on May 28, 2008, from http://
6. Lehr, C., Johnson, D., Bremer, C., Cosio, A.,
   & Thompson, M. (2004). Essential tools -           21. Lehr, op. cit.                                  45. High school redesign in Indiana: Support-
   increasing rates of completion: Moving                                                                     ing students at risk of dropping out and
                                                      22. Yazzie-Mintz, op. cit.
   from policy and research to practice. Min-                                                                 increasing course rigor. (2006). American
   neapolis, MN: National Center on Second-           23. Kleiner, B., Porch, R., Farris Westat, E. &         Youth Policy Forum. Trip Report. Retrieved
   ary Education and Transition, University of            Green, B. (2002). Public alternative schools        on May 28, 2008, from http://
   Minnesota.                                             and programs for students at risk of educa-
                                                          tion failure: 2000-01. U.S. Department of           TR111506.htm
7. Ibid.                                                  Education Office of Educational Research
                                                                                                          46. Zapf, J., Spradlin, T., & Plucker, J. (2006).
8. Balfanz, R., & Legters, N. (2004). Locating            and Improvement. Retrieved on June 5,
                                                                                                              Redesigning high schools to prepare stu-
   the dropout crisis. Center for Research on             2008, from
                                                                                                              dents for the future. Bloomington, IN: Cen-
   the Education of Students Placed At Risk,              2002004.pdf
                                                                                                              ter for Evaluation & Education Policy.
   Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved June 6,        24. Foxx, Sue. (2008). Alternative education            Retrieved on June 11, 2008, from http://
   2008, from                    programs. Indiana Department of Educa-    
   crespar/techReports/Report70.pdf                       tion. Retrieved on June 5, 2008, from http://       PB_V4N6_Spring_2006_High_School.pdf
9. Bridgeland, J., Dilulio Jr., J, & Morison, K.
                                                                                                          47. Bridgeland, op. cit.
   (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of           edlinkpg.html
   high school dropouts. Civic Enterprises for                                                            48. Yazzie-Mintz, op. cit.
                                                      25. Colasanti, M. (2007). Sanctions on driving
   the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.                   privileges. Retrieved on May 27, 2008, from     49. New Tech High School. (2008). Bill &
   Retrieved on March 27, 2008, from http://                             Melinda Gates Foundation. Retrieved on                                                                      June 11, 2008, from http://www.gatesfoun-
   ed/thesilentepidemic3-06final.pdf                  26. Ibid.
10. Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2007). Voices of students       27. What Works Clearinghouse. (2007). Insti-            formingHighSchools/ModelSchools/
    on engagement: A report on the 2006 High              tute of Education Sciences. U.S. Depart-            NTHS.htm
    School Survey of Student Engagement.                  ment of Education. Retrieved on May 27,
                                                                                                          50. Zapf, op. cit.
    Retrieved on May 27, 2008, from http://               2008, from
                                                                                                          51. Ibid.                       28. The Check and Connect Model. (Updated
    HSSSE_2006_Report.pdf                                 February 16, 2008). Retrieved on May 27,        52. The Five Promises. America’s Promise Alli-
                                                          2008, from          ance. (nd). Retrieved on June 5, 2008, from
11. Bridgeland, op. cit.
12. Ibid.                                                                                                     APAPage.aspx?id=6378
                                                      29. What Works Clearinghouse, op. cit.
13. Yazzie-Mintz, op. cit.
                                                      30. Lehr, op. cit.
14. Bottoms, G., & Anthony, K. (2005). Raising
    achievement and improving graduation              31. Common Goal. (2008). Greater Indianapo-
    rates: How nine High Schools That Work                lis Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved on
    sites are doing it. Retrieved on May 27,              June 23, 2008, from http://www.common-

                                                   IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 10
                                   Web Resources

America’s Promise Alliance

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Education

High School Survey of Student Engagement

The Indiana Commission for Higher Education: Indiana's High School Dropout Crisis
    The Indiana Commission for Higher Education: Indiana’s High School Dropout Crisis

New Technology Foundation

                         IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 11
                   High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE)
The High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) is a research and professional development
project directed by the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University. The project has three
primary purposes: (1) to help high schools explore, understand, and strengthen student engagement, (2) to
work with high school teachers and administrators on utilizing survey data to improve practices, and (3) to
conduct rigorous research on issues of student engagement.

HSSSE investigates deeply the attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs that students have about their work, the
school learning environment, and their interaction with the school community. Over the last four years,
more than 300,000 students in approximately 40 states have taken the survey. The data from the survey help
schools explore the causes and conditions that lead to student success or failure, engagement or “dis-engage-
ment,” persistence or dropping out. HSSSE data are important in guiding both immediate action on school
improvement initiatives and long-term planning of larger reforms, providing insight into ways of reaching
every student, raising achievement, and strengthening teaching and learning in high schools.

     For more information on how to participate in this survey to improve K-12 student engagement,
                                      visit the HSSSE website:

                                 Contact HSSSE project staff directly at:
                               High School Survey of Student Engagement
                                Center for Evaluation & Education Policy
                                          509 East Third Street
                                         Bloomington IN 47401
                                          Phone: 812-856-1429
                                           Fax: 812-856-1886

Education Policy Briefs are executive edited by Jonathan A. Plucker, Ph.D. and published by the

                      Center for Evaluation & Education Policy
                                           Indiana University
                                          509 East Third Street
                                      Bloomington, IN 47401-3654

                       More about the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy
                         and our publications can be found at our Web site:

                               IMPROVING HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATION RATES —— 12

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