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Why ESSA Misses Hundreds of Low-Graduation-Rate High Schools

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At nearly 500,000 students' high schools, almost half of the freshmen disappear before graduation, and federal law doesn't require those schools to get better, according to a study released Thursday.

The study aims to focus public attention on a phenomenon that has flown under the radar: high schools that have good enough graduation rates to avoid federally mandated intervention, but are able to produce those rates because so many struggling students leave.

It's timely right now, because states must start compiling their lists of schools that need "comprehensive intervention" under the Every Student Succeeds Act. At the high school level, that means any school that graduates fewer than 67 percent of its students in four years. 

Researchers from two groups that have studied graduation rates for years—Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University—conducted an analysis of the country's 15,000 high schools and issued a warning: ESSA's requirements will catch many of the problem schools, but they overlook nearly 500 schools where students are nearly as likely to leave as to graduate.

That's because ESSA requires intervention in schools when their graduation rates fall below 67 percent. Schools that do better don't have to be flagged for improvement.

Good-enough graduation rates can mask serious problems, however. The new report finds 466 high schools with graduation rates averaging 81 percent, but weak "promoting power." That means the schools don't have good track records of moving students from 9th to 10th grade, and onward through high school.

Those 466 schools have promoting power of 60 percent or less, meaning that nearly half of their freshmen never make it to 12th grade, because they drop out or transfer. Those schools—which enroll nearly 461,000 students—can produce satisfactory graduation rates because they're "losing a lot of students who otherwise could be dropouts," John M. Bridgeland, the president of Civic Enterprises, said in an interview.

Low-income students and students of color bear a disproportionate share of the impact, Bridgeland said, because those 466 schools are concentrated in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods, Bridgeland said.

Another group of high schools is likely to be overlooked by ESSA's requirements as well, the report finds. They're the very large high schools with good enough graduation rates to avoid federally mandated help, but weak enough promoting power that they lose a lot of students before graduation.

There aren't many of these schools—the report identifies only 30, enrolling nearly 106,000 students—but their sheer size means they can produce a lot of non-graduates. A high school of 2,000 students and a graduation rate of 70 percent can evade ESSA's requirement for intervention. But that means that 150 students in each class aren't graduating on time. 

Two other categories of low-graduation-rate schools also need attention, but they're likely to be identified by their states for comprehensive improvement since they have graduation rates of 67 percent or less: 863 traditional high schools, where students have an average 1-in-2 chance of graduating, and about 676 alternative schools.

The report's co-authors argue that the two categories of schools that enroll the largest numbers of students should be the focus of intensive improvements. Those are the 863 traditional high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent, which serve 791,000 students, and the schools with graduation rates above 67 percent but weak promoting power, which serve 461,000 students.

Despite the grim statistics, the report paints an optimistic picture of the prospects of improving those high schools. It notes that policymakers and educators have used combinations of effective tactics to improve high school graduation rates across the country, including a good, coherent curriculum, rigorous courses, and using early-warning indicators to provide support for students as soon as signs of trouble emerge.

In most schools, the study said, the average graduation rate already tops 90 percent. The problems are concentrated in the remaining schools. What's needed now, Bridgeland said, is a "second act" of high school improvement that focuses the lessons of the last decade on the schools that still need help.


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