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Will Raising High School Graduation Requirements Cause More Students To Drop Out?

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This PDF was published by Achieve, Inc. in 2009. Perhaps the biggest concern about raising graduation requirements is that such policies will cause more students to drop out of high school. Indeed, many people assume that high academic standards and high graduation rates simply are not compatible: The only way to raise graduation rates, they believe, is to lower academic standards. But although dropout rates are alarmingly high, particularly in our inner cities, there is no evidence that higher expectations for students increases their chances of dropping out. In fact, the opposite may be true: When students are challenged and supported, they rise to the occasion.
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   Will Raising High School Graduation Requirements CauseMore Students To Drop Out? Perhaps the biggest concern about raising graduation requirements is that such policies will causemore students to drop out of high school. Indeed, many people assume that high academic standardsand high graduation rates simply are not compatible: The only way to raise graduation rates, theybelieve, is to lower academic standards.People are right to be concerned about high school dropout rates; they are alarmingly high,particularly in our inner cities. But dropout rates were a problem before states began raisingacademic standards, and there is no evidence that higher expectations for students increases their chances of dropping out. In fact, the opposite may be true. When students are challenged andsupported, they rise to the occasion. Raising Standards Does Not Lower GraduationRates   Several years ago, San Jose Unified School Districtbegan requiring all students to complete the full set of courses required for admission to California’s publiccolleges and universities. The percentage of San Josestudents taking this rigorous curriculum and earning aC or better in all of the courses went from 37 percent to65 percent between 2001 and 2004. This morerigorous course-taking also had a positive effect on testscores and helped increase the college-ready rate for Latinos from 17 percent in 1998 to 45 percent just four years later. Enrollment for Latinos in AP courses morethan doubled.Most important, San Jose’s success has not come atthe expense of higher dropout rates, as some peoplefeared. The district’s four-year graduation ratesactually improved  slightly while the state averagedropped.  In 1997, Chicago raised its graduation standards towell above what Illinois then required, asking allstudents to complete all of the courses necessary for entry to competitive state universities. Although manyworried that the requirements would drive students todrop out, graduation rates actually improved over thenext few years. A team of independent researchersfound that some of the improvement was due to thetougher exit standards themselves. The newrequirements encouraged freshmen and sophomoresto accumulate more credits early in high school, apowerful predictor of graduating on time.If we look at some of the states that have been themost aggressive about raising expectations in highschool, we also find that more students rise to thechallenge and dropout rates do not increase. In the1990s,Texas and Indiana established honorsdiplomas based on a rigorous college-prep curriculaand encouraged more students to take those courses(they have since made them the graduationrequirement). According to data from the ManhattanInstitute, as the number of students enrolling in thesecourses climbed in these two states, the graduationrate held steady and, in some cases, improved. Thesame was true in Virginia after it instituted new end-of-course graduation tests. The percentage of students passing these tests went from 40 percent to80 percent in the first five years, with no increase inthe dropout rate.   Will Raising High School Graduation Requirements CauseMore Students To Drop Out? Higher Standards Must Be Accompanied BySupports While higher standards may not cause more studentsto drop out, simply holding graduation rates steady isnot good enough either. School systems must raisestandards, improve student achievement and increasegraduation rates all at the same time.To accomplish this, higher standards must beaccompanied by more intensive academic supports.The Virginia legislature appropriated $200 million for fiscal years 2005–2006 to fund K–12 prevention,intervention and remediation efforts, including after-school tutoring and summer school for students whofailed the graduation tests on their first attempt, as wellas an Algebra-readiness program. San Jose UnifiedSchool District adopted a similar approach, providingstruggling students with extended learning time after school and on weekends, and forming partnershipswith community colleges and businesses to providetutoring and mentoring support.One recent study found that high schools with highlysupportive teachers cut the probability of dropping outin half, and the impact was even greater for low-achieving, low-income students. A study of Marylandhigh schools found that those using a school-within-a-school strategy or a team-teaching approach for ninthgraders “showed substantial improvements onpromotion, dropout and achievement outcomesbetween 1993–1994 and 1999–2000.” Dropouts Themselves Say Low Standards Are Partof the Problem Surveys have consistently found that teenagers citeboredom — not demanding classes — as the biggestreason for dropping out of high school. In one recentsurvey, seven out of 10 dropouts said their schools didnot motivate them to work hard, eight out of 10 saidthey did less than one hour of homework each night,and two-thirds said they would have worked harder if adults had expected more of them. A national survey of public school students found they most oftenconsidered dropping out because “school was boring”(76 percent) and “I wasn’t learning anything” (42percent).Other studies have shown that, everything else beingequal, schools that push students to take tougher academic courses actually have lower dropout rates.Two University of Michigan researchers found thathigh schools that offer fewer low-level math classesbelow Algebra I reduce the odds of dropping out by28 percent, and those that offer challenging classeslike Calculus reduce the odds by 55 percent. “Thisfinding flies in the face of those who say that highschools must offer a large number of non-demandingcourses in order to keep uncommitted students inschool,” the researchers concluded.In other words, it’s not high expectations that causestudents to drop out. Students are more likely tobecome disengaged and drop out when they are notchallenged. The Bottom Line:Educators and others are right to be concernedabout dropout rates. In today’s world, studentswho leave high school without a diploma facediminishing opportunities and a lifetime of financial struggle. But the answer is not tocontinue to expect little of teenagers and to enrolllow-achieving students in “easy” classes thatbore them and teach them little of value. We oweit to students to challenge and support them sothey graduate with the knowledge and skillsnecessary to succeed.
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