Our skewed drop-out rates

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One dirty, not-so-secret fact has too often been ignored: While the U.S. dropout rate has been declining, the pace of that decline remains glacial in many zip codes. For the year 2013, the U.S. government estimates that 5.1% of whites dropped out of high school, 7.3% of blacks, and 11.7% of Hispanics.* (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_219.70.asp) The government defines drop-outs as “16- to 24-year-olds who are not enrolled in school and who have not completed a high school program, regardless of when they left school. People who have received GED credentials are counted as high school completers.” These percentages should be viewed as approximations. Standards of error in the chart vary considerably. GEDs don’t work as well as diplomas for future employment purposes. Most importantly, school reporting has historically suffered from over-optimism that could be said to border on fraud. Schools have been known to count students who are moving or dropping out as graduates when those students told administrators that they intended to get their GED later, for example. My district used to do this. For all I know, they still do. The government has tightened reporting requirements, but historical data will always be suspect.

Admittedly, the U.S. drop-out rate has become one area in education to see real progress. The 2013 drop-out rate for all races in the government charts totaled 6.8%, a decline from 9.9% ten years earlier. If increased government scrutiny and regulation has led to any wins, the falling drop-out rate must be counted among them. Despite our disproportionate drop-out rate among Hispanic and African- students, America has whittled down a rate that stood at 14.1% in 1980 to less than half that amount today. Even if these percentages are fuzzy numbers fed by sometimes questionable data, a real decline in the drop-out rate has occurred. More students and parents are acknowledging the long-term importance of a high school diploma.

I’d like to focus on that 11.7% or Hispanics and 7.3% of African-Americans, though. We are marketing the most important product that anyone will ever try to sell these students, yet many still walk away from high school on the first day they are legally allowed to exit the premises. We are doing this in a time when any kid who is not living in a closed bomb shelter understands how tough America’s job market has become. Why are these students leaving school? What are we doing wrong?

At least in some cases, I would like to suggest that students are leaving because of fictions created by educational leaders, starting with the idea that students can leap huge chasms in their background learning levels if only we push hard enough. Last year, I was required to give my bilingual students exactly the same tests and quizzes as the regular classes in their grade. The special education teachers were also required to give the same tests and quizzes. Materials presented were essentially undifferentiated. It didn’t matter if you were a life-time special education student, a new arrival from Honduras, or the kid with the highest state test scores in the grade. You received the same tests and quizzes as everybody else. Then teachers shared data. Failing students were entered in red. My classes were often a sea of red, especially if a quiz or test had many story problems.

When I first learned about this educational experiment, I made a prediction: The kids at the top would benefit, hard-working kids in the middle would sometimes benefit, and the kids at the bottom were about to be clobbered. The data eventually proved me right. Why does this concern me? Aside from the fact that students should never receive test questions they cannot even understand, and aside from the fact that a student should be able to succeed at any fair test or quiz with a reasonable amount of studying, I have become convinced that we are setting up a subset of students for failure.

Research has identified characteristics associated with dropping out (http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Staffingstudents/Keeping-kids-in-school-At-a-glance/Keeping-kids-in-school-Preventing-dropouts.html), such as a history of being held back in school, attendance difficulties, lack of family or peer support, becoming a parent, inability to balance employment with school responsibilities , low grades and test scores, and especially failed math and English classes. By middle school, we can do an excellent job of predicting whether a student will stay the academic course: Any one of the following traits suggests students have only a 10 to 20% chance of graduating on time:

• Attending school less than 80 percent of the time
• Receiving an unsatisfactory Behavior grade/demonstrating mild but sustained misbehavior, or
• Course failure (particularly in math or English/reading)

(Edutopia: Middle School’s Role in Dropout Prevention, August 21, 2012 http://www.edutopia.org/blog/dropout-prevention-middle-school-resources-anne-obrien)

Yet despite the fact that failed tests and classes are big predictors for dropping out, we are rapidly reaching the point where our educational “product” consists mostly of standardized test preparation, combined with classes specifically pointed toward a possible university education. We prepare for those tests by taking more tests, sometimes tests that students cannot even read. For the student who never does well on tests, we don’t have much of a product to sell. For the student who has no aspirations to climb onto the college track, we don’t have much to sell. For the student who struggles and often fails the many tests and quizzes in the year’s pipeline — tests and quizzes possibly linked to a curriculum that is neither realistic nor age-appropriate for that individual student – today’s school has become a depressing place, punctuated by frequent failures that mark the year’s best efforts.

After too many such failures, academic efforts may sputter to a sad halt, replaced by “unsatisfactory Behavior grade/demonstrating mild but sustained misbehavior.” Why does a student who started on track in elementary school fall into sustained misbehavior in middle school or even earlier? Hormones are sometimes blithely thrown out as an explanation, but many excellent students undergo identical hormonal changes. In my experience, one of the best predictors of misbehavior is being out of sync academically with peers, especially for students who have fallen behind.

I believe furious attempts to raise standardized test scores ironically create misbehaving, failing students in some cases. As we stuff classrooms with students ranging from a third-grade level to a ninth-grade level academically, and then hand those students common preparatory materials chosen because those materials are expected to provide optimal test preparation, we create a group of lost students who simply are too far behind to succeed with the material they have been given. A student reading at a second grade level and doing math at a third grade level cannot do seventh grade work on any regular basis. Period. That student is unlikely to sit quietly staring at activity sheets that might as well be written in ancient Greek.

The kids at the bottom know they are at the bottom. Even if we can create a safe-learning environment — which should always be a top priority in an academically-diverse class — those kids can see that they have fallen behind most of their peers. Frequently, those students feel embarrassed. To avoid feeling embarrassed, they may act out. The class clown is frequently deflecting attention from the fact that he can’t do his classwork, much less the homework.

In yesterday’s post, I also discussed the problem of inappropriate curricula and materials. I believe we are creating at least some of the difference between our Hispanic, African-American and white drop-out rates. My students all came from homes where English was a second language. They were all behind in reading. If you can’t read the book, you can’t do the work. If you can’t do the work, you may be unable to pass the class. If the only book we give you is the book directly aligned to the standardized test for your grade, you may be, to quote from yesterday’s post, overwhelmed. Demolished. Smashed. Disintegrated. Incinerated. Annhiliated. Obliterated.

Or we could simply say nuked.

When the focus of instruction becomes almost solely the content of the state standardized test expected in the spring, students who are unready to access that content are necessarily left behind, short of valiant tutoring efforts that these students may be unwilling or unable to attend. Even with tutoring, students who are too far behind mandated materials may be unable to catch up. In my experience, after awhile less resilient students give up.

Eduhonesty: Students who enter school with substantial English-language deficits should have longer school days and a set of curricular goals based on their need for English-language acquisition, not on their need to pass the year’s standardized tests. This includes English-speaking students who speak a dialect in the home that does not fit the dialect of tests and students who simply lack vocabulary. Words are the tools these students will require for long-term success. Skipping ahead when students have not acquired the language skills they must have to succeed is nothing short of pedagogical malpractice.

* No offense to those who find the terms black and white to be overly simplistic. Those are the terms used in the government’s charts.