Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Dropout Rate Down? Not So Fast

The statewide figures on the annual dropout rate show a “slight decline,” but the rate for the Boston Public Schools is going the other way. In 2005-06, the rate for Boston’s district schools was 9.9%. That was higher than the figures for the 7 previous years.

Among the more conventional high schools, there were four with an annual dropout rate in double digits: Brighton High, East Boston High, Jeremiah Burke High, and Boston English. The rates had increased for all of these schools, except Jeremiah Burke, where the rate decreased from 17% the previous year to 14.9%, or 117 students. There were even higher rates at some of the innovative subdivided high schools. School Dept. spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo says this might reflect students who entered the larger district high schools before they were reconfigured into smaller, more specialized units.

Hardly unusual in the new figures are the differences by race and gender. The highest rate in Boston involving a large number was for Hispanic students (12%). The rates for other racial groups were: Black (10.9%), White (7.4%), and Asian (2.6%). There was also a gender gap, with the rate for males at 11.6% and for females at 8.3%.

Palumbo notes that annual figures don’t tell as much as the figures that track a group of students over a number of years. Though the annual figures do fluctuate, the ups and downs of the 4 most recent years follow 4 years of a steady decline, from 1998-99 through 2001-02. That change coincides with the start of a requirement for high school graduates to pass MCAS in English and Math. But this year’s figures also suggest the dropouts are motivated by other reasons besides struggles with MCAS. Other figures show a steadily rising percentages of students in the Boston Public Schools who satisfy the MCAS graduation requirement by the end of grade 11. Of the 12th graders who dropped out of school in 2005-06 throughout Massachusetts, more than two-thirds had already met the MCAS requirement.

In reaction to the 12th grade dropout figures, State Education Commissioner David Driscoll issued a statement saying, “It is concerning to me that so many of our older students are getting within striking distance to earning a high school diploma, but dropping our before they can graduate.” The Dept. of Education surveyed school superintendents about the problem and found two main reasons: family and academics. The department also says many students reported dropping out “to begin working because they didn’t think they could afford the cost of college tuition.”

The executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, Neil Sullivan, says some of the students who drop out in grade 12 are short of the academic requirements for graduation by only a few credits. That would still be enough to require repeating a grade. Sullivan explains, “They don’t relish the embarrassment of returning to that high school after their peers have graduated.”

According to Sullivan, the missing links are an alternative that would let students get their diplomas more quickly, without going back to the same school, and—by way of dropout prevention—more attention to how grades 11 and 12 are a launch to college or a career.

“We have to integrate the end of high school with the beginning of something else,” said Sullivan. “If we do that, we’re going to bring down the dropout rate among 11 and 12 graders.”

But he says that also requires bridging a gap in motivation that holds back many students from disadvantaged backgrounds—a gap that the Private Industry Council has tried to narrow by having at-risk students combine academic work with experience in a workplace. “We have to give young people the experiences that motivate them while they’re in high school,” said Sullivan. “We can’t just be lecturing them on delayed gratification.”

Updates. The Boston Municipal Research Bureau reports the dropout problem is getting even more attention from the School Dept. The revised budget approved last week by the City Council contains a supplement of $500,000 for student attendance problems and the dropout rate. The problem is also under study by the Mauricio Gastón Instititute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy at UMass Boston, which notes that the cohort dropout rate in Mass. for Latino students with limited English proficiency was 33.2%.