Persisting Students' Pathways and Experiences Through High School
This week we are hearing from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (@RANYCS). This post is by Kathryn Hill (@) and Zitsi Mirakhur (@zitsi_mirakhur), Research Associates at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.
Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.
Around the country, reducing dropout rates and increasing high school graduation rates have been enduring, central goals of education policy, and for many cities—including New York—these efforts appear to have paid off. Over the past decade, New York City's high school graduation rate has risen dramatically. Yet, in spite of these gains, about a quarter of students from each 9th grade class still do not graduate on time. Some of these students permanently drop out within their first four years, but a much larger proportion actually remain enrolled (or re-enroll after dropping out temporarily) and continue working toward a diploma in their fifth or sixth year of high school.
The Research Alliance for New York City Schools recently completed a study of these "persisting students." They not only are a large group (about one in five students—or more than 12,000 per entering class), they are also particularly vulnerable. Yet, the fact that they maintain a connection to the education system offers meaningful opportunities to intervene and provide much-needed support.
What the Research Examines
Our study zeroed in on a set of questions aimed at illuminating the experiences and outcomes of NYC students who do not graduate on time but stay enrolled in school. We asked: Who are these persisting students, and how did they fall behind? What schools do these students attend? What supports do persisting students (and the educators who work with them) see as most valuable? Finally, what happens to these students? How many of them eventually drop out, and how many manage to graduate?
We used mixed methods to explore these questions. Our quantitative analyses focused on a cohort of 66,811 students who entered high school in the fall of 2010 (the most recent cohort that we could track for six years after they started high school). To complement these analyses, we interviewed 20 students and 7 educators in alternative educational settings that are specially designed to serve students who struggle to graduate.
Source: Research Alliance calculations based on data obtained from the NYC Department of Education. Note: Figure includes all students who enrolled in NYC public schools as first-time 9th graders in 2010 (N = 66,811). 
What the Research Finds
Persisting students look similar to those who permanently drop out, in terms of demographic and early academic characteristics. Reflecting system-wide inequalities, persisting students are disproportionately Black or Latino and male and more likely to be living in poverty. In middle school, they struggle academically. More than a third were chronically absent in 8th grade (their rates of chronic absenteeism continue to grow in high school, climbing to more than 60 percent in 11th and 12th grade). These findings show that it is possible—as early as middle school—to identify students who are unlikely to graduate on time. Our interviews also revealed that persisting students face a host of challenges not captured in their administrative records, including abuse, homelessness, gang involvement, early parenthood, and serious health issues.
Persisting students are concentrated in high-needs schools. We found that 25 percent of persisting students were enrolled in the same 20 schools (out of more than 400 high schools citywide) during their 9th grade year. In general, the high schools that persisting students attended were less likely to be perceived by students as orderly and safe, and adults in those schools were seen as less accessible, compared to the high schools that four-year graduates attended.
Many students who have fallen behind are counseled into alternative settings. Persisting students are more mobile than others—switching high schools at greater rates during their first four years—and movement into alternative educational settings account for a large portion of this mobility. Almost a quarter of persisting students attended an alternative school during their first four years of high school, compared to only 2 percent of four-year graduates. Yet, our interviews with educators and students suggest that decision-making and communication about these alternative options sometimes happens in an ad hoc fashion.
Persisting students enter their fifth year of high school with a wide variety of academic needs. When they begin their fifth year, there are dramatic differences in how far persisting students have to go to graduate. About a quarter of persisting students are marginally behind—on average, they have enough credits to graduate but still need to pass one Regents exam. Meanwhile, 44 percent of persisting students are moderately behind, having about a year's worth of coursework to complete and two Regents exams to pass. Finally, about 30 percent of persisting students are drastically behind, with two to three years of coursework left to complete and four Regents exams to pass. Not surprisingly, marginally behind students managed to graduate at much higher rates (71 percent did so within six years, compared with 19 percent of drastically behind persisting students).
Implications for Practice
Our findings suggest three key implications for practice:
- Identify at-risk students and intervene early. Our research joins the growing body of evidence highlighting the importance of students' academic performance in middle school. Our findings also suggest the need for sustained attention to students' family and personal lives to identify and support those most at risk.
- Be more strategic about student placement. A significant proportion of persisting students end up transferring into an alternative school, but we found evidence that decisions about when and where to move persisting students sometimes occur in an ad hoc fashion. Educators, parents and students could profit from more information and clearer guidelines about the options available for students who fall behind in high school.
- Tailor interventions to meet persisting students' varying needs. Students who are drastically behind are likely to benefit from different interventions than those who are only marginally behind. Educators and students we interviewed highlighted the value of a carefully tailored academic program focused on helping students earn missing course credits or pass needed Regents exams. Our interviews also underscored the importance of targeted social and emotional supports, and a plan for the future that helps students connect their current coursework with future employment.
Previous blog posts by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools:
- Inequities in College Access and Success: Findings From New York City
- Beyond Tuition: Needs-Based Grants Can Close Racial Attainment Gaps
- 4 Key Strategies for Improving School Culture for Black and Latino Male Students
- How a High School Transformed Its School Culture
- How New York City Is Working to Improve Students' Social-Emotional Learning
- A New Approach to Social-Emotional Learning Research: Putting Practitioners and Youths in the Driver's Seat
Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!
 "Persisting students" are students who have not graduated by the end of their 4th year of high school, and are enrolled for at least one semester during their 5th and 6th years. "Permanent Dropouts" are students who are not enrolled for all semesters during what should be their fifth and sixth years of high school. They do not have a high school credential; nor are they formally discharged to another school district. "On-Time Graduates" are students who have earned a Regents or local diploma by the end of their 4th year of high school (including the subsequent summer). The cohort of students shown in the figure does not include those who enrolled in NYC public high schools after their 9th grade year or students who were repeating 9th graders in 2010.