These new efforts began around 2010 when states aligned the way that graduation rates were calculated. Arne Duncan, then Secretary of Education, argued in 2012
that this new, uniform way of calculating graduation rates would make states “more honest in holding schools accountable and ensuring that students succeed.”
A major reason that the federal government and states had to begin looking at the graduation rate issue was because of No Child Left Behind. Almost as soon as it became law in 2002, NCLB imbued state governments and school districts with fervor to comply with all the new accountability measures so as not to lose federal funding. It quickly became clear that measurements of student achievement and retention had much higher results if the lowest performing students just simply weren’t counted. So states, districts, and schools slowly ceased the practices of dropout prevention and dropout recovery that had previously been part of their efforts. If students dropped out, schools just let them go: fewer low scores to count in their Annual Yearly Progress reports. Thus, the toxic rewards that schools received for allowing kids to dropout became embedded in the practices of school districts around the country.
Now, the current overlying federal mandate, Race to the Top, includes graduation rates with the new national formula as part of its reporting requirements. This new “accountability” demand is all the more tough because of the now common practice of letting students who dropout just disappear into the ether. With four-year cohort graduation rates now counted, districts are under new pressures to NOT have dropouts. But as we have seen time and time again, high stakes accountability requirements that demand instant change can do more to corrupt the way students are treated and taught in public schools than actually produce best practices over the long haul. Enter Chicago Public Schools’ attempt to meet the accountability requirements of graduation rates by fudging the numbers. Louisiana has had similar issues, where the stakes are so high that graduation rate counts for 25 percent of schools’ performance scores.
We are all familiar with the challenges that high stakes testing pose for students and teachers, and with the pressures school and district administrators face in trying to meet the accountability requirements that will keep them functioning another year. But just like the habits that have developed over the last 14 years since NCLB began, it’s a lot easier for us to forget about the challenges faced by up to 30% of high school students who for a variety of reasons leave before graduating. Some leave because their families are transient. Some leave because there are pressures at home that seem much more demanding than a school that doesn’t care if they don’t come back. Some leave because they’ve been bullied long enough and can’t take it anymore. And some leave because they just can’t fit their dynamic way of thinking into the dullish requirements of traditional school. On top of those issues, vocational training and many electives have disappeared under budgetary and testing time requirements, so the very classes that kept at-risk students in school are no longer available either.
States like Washington and Michigan are starting to build their Dropout Recovery programs again and districts have begun to work in a variety of ways to give students opportunities to return and get their diplomas. But the system itself hasn’t changed. The adjustments made to public education in the name of accountability have pushed out thousands of students, most of whom aged out before they could return in any recovery program, if there were one. Keeping kids in school is not just about stricter attendance keeping or finding other “accountability” tactics to try to finagle higher graduation rates. Keeping kids in school means adjusting the way we think about school itself, what it offers students facing adult life in the 21st century, and how a diploma can lead to a variety of successful vocations beyond 4 year college.
Full disclosure, I teach for a digital dropout recovery program. My students have taken charge of their own education, even while they work full time, have young families, or deal with illness or injury. The diplomas they earn are done on their own terms, and are all the more meaningful because of that. Working with them has multiplied my belief in the resiliency of American students and what they are capable of. If only their schools, districts, and states had recognized that in them and cultivated it before they felt pushed out of the system that is supposed to help them. Ending the dropout epidemic in America will not be easy, nor will it be the result of one, standardized answer. It will be all of us in education who believe that true change is possible and we are the ones who can begin to make that change happen for our students.