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Massachusetts Dropout Rates Rise in 2003-2004: Recommendations for Action

Susan Notes: This is action research, research that matters.

Massachusetts dropout rates rose in 2003-2004, according to a report released by the Massachusetts Department of Education in October 2005. The report, "Dropout Rates in Massachusetts Public Schools, 2003-04," is posted on the Massachusetts Department of Education's website at

As in the past, Latino and African American students, students with disabilities, students learning English as a second language, and students from resource-stressed districts, both urban and rural, are most vulnerable to current policies and practices that put them at risk of leaving school without a diploma.

This report highlights findings of the state report and details the following recommendations:

State-level decision-makers should:
(1) eliminate the MCAS graduation requirement,
(2) report MCAS pass rates to describe fully the status of all students originally enrolled in each class by calculating rates based on ninth grade enrollment;
(3) provide guidelines for dropout prevention strategies, with a focus on alternatives to local "push-out" practices, promising students support programs, and effective whole-school reform strategies, and
(4) allocate funds for dropout prevention programs to high-need districts and provide technical assistance to schools and districts with high dropout rates, especially those with high Latino enrollment.

Local districts should:
(1) review and reform practices that contribute to dropping out,
(2) replace counterproductive practices with positive alternatives to improve school holding power,
(3) work with community-based organizations to develop student support programs to prevent truancy, suspension, and grade retention and strengthen students' commitment to school.

Highlighted findings

1. In one year alone, between 2002-03 and 2003-04, the number of high school dropouts rose from 9,389 to 10,633 students. The additional 1,244 students classified as dropping out represent an increase of 13.6% in one year alone. This increase does not include students dropping out of school from the middle grades.

2. Dropout numbers, the annual dropout rate (of 3.7%), and the estimated 4-year cohort rate (of 14.3%) are all the highest they have been since the Massachusetts Education Reform Law was enacted in 1994.

3. Dropout rates are rising in tandem with the implementation of the state's MCAS graduation requirement and are predicted to continue to rise into the future.
For example, 30.7% of Boston's class of 2007 is expected to drop out of school (compared with 14.3% for the state). This rate is up from 27% for the class of 2006; and from 25% for the class of 2005.

4. The majority of dropouts come from urban districts, and these students are disproportionately represented among dropouts. For example, although Boston students make up only 6.4% of all students enrolled in Massachusetts grades 9-12, 14% of all students counted as official "dropouts" in Massachusetts came from Boston.

The Policy Context

Current educational policy and practice works against school holding power for the state's most vulnerable students. To reduce dropout rates, schools must reform practices that push students out of school and reconsider school routines that leave students feeling unconnected to school. New funding, policies, and practices should strengthen whole-school holding power, make the school day welcoming and engaging for all students, and implement alternatives to grade retention, suspension, push-out attendance policies, and grouping practices that marginalize students.

Policy makers should address the following:

*** The MCAS graduation requirement contributes to dropping out in Massachusetts.

Passing MCAS does not protect students from dropping out. Among dropouts, 45% had passed MCAS. However:

--- Massachusetts students in grades 11 and 12 who have not passed MCAS are nine times more likely to drop out of school than students who have passed MCAS.

--- In GRADE 11:
---Of grade 11 students who had not passed MCAS statewide, 13.5% dropped out of school.
--- Of grade 11 students who did pass MCAS, only 1.5% dropped out of school.
------ The annual dropout rate for 11th graders is 4.0%.

--- In GRADE 12:
---Of grade 12 students who had not passed MCAS statewide, 16.3% dropped out of school.
------ Of grade 12 students who did pass MCAS, only 1.8% dropped out of school.
------- The annual dropout rate for 12th graders is 4.8%.

Over the past decade, districts and high schools have felt heavy pressure to produce high MCAS "pass rates." The "pass rates" claimed as a result, however, have been consistently "improved" by a formula for calculating pass rates that does not account for students lost from the education pipeline after grade 9 (see, for example, "MA Dept. of Education inflates MCAS pass rates for classes of 2005 and 2006, masking wide opportunity and achievement gaps," http://www.massparents.org/news/2005/pass_rates.htm
The failure to account for these students has drawn attention away from the problem of school dropouts while misleading the public about the status of achievement for all students in the state.

*** School policies and practices push vulnerable students out of school and contribute to dropping out in Massachusetts. Practices that have a "push-out" effect include:

--- Holding students back in grade.
Grade retention is increasing in Massachusetts, resulting in more students overage for their grade statewide, but especially in low-resourced districts (see
Grade retention is experienced most often and in the earliest grades by African American and Latino students. Students who repeat the early grades are also frequently marginalized in low-track classes where they move more slowly through the curriculum in classes separate and distinct from their grade-level peers. These students are also at high risk for repeating again in the high school grades, then dropping out. The practice of holding students back in grade is a practice that research consistently finds undermines student engagement. Repeating a grade results in lower achievement, exacerbating achievement gaps that widens as students move through their schooling. Repeating a grade also contributes more powerfully than any other factor to truancy and dropping out. (See "Second Time Around," http://www.asbj.com/2004/11/1104research.html and "An Overview of National Research on the Effectiveness of Retention on Student Achievement," http://www.advocatesforchildren.org/pubs/retention.html

---Student suspension and exclusion.
Exclusion is increasing in Massachusetts statewide, affecting African American and Latino students six times more frequently than white students. See http://www.doe.mass.edu/infoservices/reports/exclusions/0203 An increasing number of exclusions are for reasons given as "other," not for violence, drugs, or alcohol problems that endanger others. Instead of resulting in safer schools, expulsion and suspension contribute powerfully to greater student disengagement (see "The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools?," http://www.pdkintl.org/kappan/kski9901.htm

--- Counter-productive attendance policies and practices.
Local practices that exclude students who are truant or tardy from school have a "push-out" effect on vulnerable students who come to believe they are not welcome in school. Rather than provide attendance-support services, some schools suspend students for truancy or rely on local police to round up truant and take them to court. Others, like some Boston high schools, lock tardy students out of school (see Boston Globe, 20 October, 2005, "Students ask end to locking out the tardy," http://tinyurl.com/aplqn
Such practices contribute to students' concluding that "school is not for me."

*** The Massachusetts Department of Education has had no state funding for dropout prevention since 1997.

During the years following the passage of Chapter 188, the state's education reform law that pre-dated the education reform law of 1994, the state received approximately $2.5 million each year to stimulate alternatives to school push-out practices and provide districts with funds to support dropout prevention programs. During that period, the state's 4-year cohort rate declined from 20% to 13%. The Department has not requested such funding nor has the Massachusetts legislature approved such funding since 1997.

Recommendations for action

1. The Massachusetts legislature should eliminate the use of MCAS as a graduation requirement and adopt alternatives proposed by the New England School Accreditation Council, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE).

2. The Massachusetts Department of Education should report MCAS "pass rates" based on the number of students who begin high school in the 9th grade with their class, not on the lower number of students still enrolled in school at the end of the pipeline. Reporting MCAS pass rates in this way would highlight the extent to which students are "lost" from the educational pipeline before graduation and draw attention to the dropout problem. This approach to describing MCAS pass rates would more fully account for the status of all students in a given high school cohort.

3. The Massachusetts Department of Education should fund comprehensive dropout prevention programs at a minimum of $2.5 a minimum per year, the amount allocated prior to elimination of dropout prevention funding in 1997. Past funding for dropout prevention programs helped lower high dropout rates during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

4. The Massachusetts Department of Education should publicize guidelines for dropout prevention approaches designed to improve promoting power and graduating power in high-need schools. These programs should aim to hold in school and reverse disengagement of high-risk students via comprehensive approaches that include:

---(a) Alternatives to grade retention, with an emphasis on provide extra academic support for students who need it in students' age-appropriate grade and on a regular, inclusive basis and programs that provide support and incentives for over-age students to catch up with their age-mates (see, "Extra help to 'meet standards' and prevent grade retention," http://www.csteep.bc.edu/ctestweb/retention/retention2.html

--- (b) Alternatives to suspension and exclusion, including the use of student support teams, restitution, and peer mediation training to resolve conflict (see "Student assistance at East Hartford High, http://www.snet.net/features/issues/articles/2001/07130101.shtml "Resolving Conflict Creatively Program," http://www.esrnational.org/rccpselect.htm "Turning to each other, not on each other: How school communities prevent racial bias in school discipline, http://www.justicematters.org/turning.pdf
and "Evaluating in-school suspension programs," http://www.educationworld.com/a_issues/chat/chat082.shtml

---(c) Alternatives to counterproductive attendance policies, emphasizing personal and individualized support through on-the-ground counseling to get student to school every day, "buy-back" attendance policies, and peer support (see "Combat truancy by making school worth attending," http://www.s-t.com/daily/05-03/05-16-03/a17op079.htm

--- (d) Alternatives to tracking and ability grouping practices for improved attendance, discipline, and on-time progress from ninth grade (see "Detracking with Vigilence"

Detracking in middle and high schools eliminates labeling, extends opportunities to learn usually reserved for high-scoring students to all students in multi-ability classes, and provides extra-help and counseling so all students can succeed in grade-level classes (see "Detracking in Middle and Senior High Schools," http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/files/tracking.html and "Crossing the Tracks," http://www.middleweb.com/Whlcktrack.html

Dropout prevention program guideline should also encourage partnerships with effective community-based and parent organizations, including organizations able to communicate in the language of students' homes. For example:
---- The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends partnerships between schools and community organizations as vehicles for offering students services to prevent student exclusion. See

---- The Hispanic Dropout Project reports that successful schools actively involved students' extended families in engaging students in staying in school. See

5. Comprehensive dropout prevention fund should also support whole-school reform in high-need, resource-stressed schools. Schools with high dropout rates should reconsider how all aspects of school life -- including classroom curriculum, teaching and learning strategies, grouping practices, and teacher-student relationships -- can be redesigned to reduce student alienation, develop students' identity as learners, and reinforce the school as a learning community. Examples include:

---- (a) Talent Development Schools, developed by and supported with technical assistance from Johns Hopkins University and Howard University, offer effective reform strategies (for more active curriculum, student-centered counseling, and extra-help schoolwide) that should be adoped at the middle school level. See http://www.middleweb.com/maciver.html
and in high schools http://www.csos.jhu.edu/tdhs

Talent Development High Schools have strengthened "promoting power" so that the most vulnerable students succeed and progress on time out of grade nine. See "The Ninth-Grade Bottleneck

--- (b) Accelerated Schools PLUS, based at the University of Connecticut, works in partnership with the National Research Center for the Gifted and Talented to help schools, especially in high-need communities, reorganize to provide "gifted and talented" teaching strategies to all students. See http://web.uconn.edu/asp/Accelerated_Schools_Plus/WhatIs.htm While the majority of schools in the AS PLUS network are elementary schools, middle and high schools also adopt this model successfully.

--- (c) Schools with holding power for Latino students emphasize caring, community, and personalization to develop students' connectedness to school and offer learning experiences that expand students' sense of who they are and can become without requiring them to give up their cultural identity or family loyalties. See A href="http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/ccvi/pub/manuscript/Secada-No_More_Excuses.pdf">

--- (d) Professional development that strengthens teachers' understanding of students' diverse cultural backgrounds can also improve school holding power and teacher-student bonding See "Bridging Cultures,"


6. Districts, especially urban and low-resourced districts, should not wait for state leadership to reform counterproductive practices and policies related to grade failure, suspension and exclusion, attendance, and tracking and ability grouping by replacing immediately these practices with positive alternatives.

— Anne Wheelock, Senior Research Associate
Progress Through the Education Pipeline Project, Boston College



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