Chapter 2
III. Are there school or district policies and practices that need to be changed?

Policies and practices at the state, district, and school levels also influence graduation rates, helping students stay on the graduation path or setting up obstacles to their students’ success. By understanding your school district’s policies better and what research has found about those kinds of approaches, you can look at policy changes that will serve your students more effectively.

A wide range of what may be viewed as customary, benign or even important individual school and district policies and practices can inadvertently encourage, enable, or fail to prevent dropping out. These include:

Attendance policies: Even the best teachers with excellent, engaging lessons cannot help students who are not in school. Still, some states and/or their districts require no formal response to absences until students miss a certain number of consecutive days (e.g., five) or a total number of days (e.g., 10) in a quarter or semester. This tells schools it is okay to do nothing until it is almost too late. It also leads some students to become expert manipulators of the system, always missing one day less than the limit that triggers a mandatory response. This is particularly important because research shows that declining attendance is one of the key early indicators of students who are most likely to drop out. Therefore, a better policy demands that every absence have a response. To do this, it is necessary that schools have accurate lists of who is in school and who is not on any given day and mechanisms to reach parents and students.

Counting Absentees: When schools count who is absent, they may do so for whole days, half-days or by period — the exact method depends on state and district policies, the grade level and the sophistication of the data collection system. For the most part, policies distinguish between unexcused and excused absences, with only unexcused absences counting in the absentee column. The number of absentees is then aggregated, compared against the number of students who should be there, and reported as “Average Daily Attendance” (ADA), which is often used for state and district accountability purposes. ADA does not, however, tell you about what is happening with an individual student or the patterns shown by groups of students.

Absenteeism and Chronic Absenteeism: Research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center, the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, and the Philadelphia Education Fund over the last 10 years, now replicated in many places, showed the relationship between absence and eventual graduation (or not). Recent studies in California, Oregon, Providence and Baltimore have shown that startlingly high numbers of students – varying by grade level — are absent from school for 10 percent of the time or 18 to 20 days (given a school year of 180 days). These studies counted students as absent whether or not they were excused. The term given to describe this set of students is “chronic absentees.”

Missing 10 percent of school, or 18-20 days per year, for whatever reason, is the equivalent of a month of school days and there is developing evidence that chronic absenteeism is linked to dropping out. The students who benefit from school most, those living in high-poverty areas, are also most likely to be chronic absentees, often due to circumstances, such as family demands or the need to support themselves, that take precedence over school. However, an absence is an absence when it comes to creating habits that eventually lead to dropping out.

You can begin to fight chronic absenteeism by asking your school for its chronic absenteeism rate. If you can determine that rate, the first battle is over. If the rate is unavailable, urge your schools and district to keep track of individual student absences, including excused absences, even though it is most likely not required by the state. Ask your schools to tally how many students are absent 0-4 days, 5-9 days, 10-15 days, and so forth. Examine how those numbers change over time. Estimate what the absenteeism rate will be at the end of the year. This information will be the foundation for the work ahead. And there’s quite a bit of work ahead of you, most likely. If you find that chronic absenteeism is a problem in your community, you can attack it on many fronts, beginning with finding the individual students and their reasons for missing school so often, then moving on to solutions.

Discipline policies: School, district, and even state discipline policies often contribute to student absenteeism by requiring out-of-school suspensions for many infractions. In some districts, students are actually suspended because of unexcused absences, which is troubling because research indicates that even one suspension in ninth grade substantially increases the likelihood of dropping out. Additionally, numerous studies show that African American students are suspended at two to three times the rate of white or Hispanic students, a pattern  likely to contribute to the achievement and graduation gaps that exist in many areas. Schools and districts must find ways other than suspension to discipline students – teacher “buddy systems” in which moderately disruptive students go “reset” in another teacher’s classroom, “time-out” rooms with counseling, in-school suspensions when accompanied by expectations for completing classwork, behavior management clinics, and after-school work projects are all viable alternatives to forcing a student to miss more time in class. Also, through an early warning indicator system and targeted interventions, you may be able to respond quickly to problems before they grow. (See Chapter 3, Section 2 , Using early warning indicators to develop dropout prevention and recovery systems).

Grade promotion policies. In some districts, if students do not earn enough credits to be promoted, they must repeat the entire grade, retaking classes they already passed. This policy tends to demoralize students, increasing their chances of dropping out. Students should be required to retake only the classes they have failed and should receive support so they can rejoin their peers mid-year or earlier. With many new on-line courses and methods, a student’s program can be customized and monitored without having a formal class.

Grade retention policies. Social promotion does not work; students get to high school on time, but without the skills they need to be successful. Holding students back doesn’t work either, especially once they have reached adolescence. When students are held back in middle and high school, they become discouraged, are often significantly older than their classmates and often eventually drop out. In high-poverty school districts, the graduation rate for eighth-graders who are two or three years older than their peers can be 20 percent or lower! (These older eighth-graders are often students who were held back once or twice in middle school and sometimes elementary school). Intensive and continuous in- and out-of-school supports are needed as soon as a student begins to struggle. It is a much better use of time and money to enable students to catch up (using Saturday and summer school and extended days during the school year) than to hold them back.

Grading policies. In some districts, students are graded on a scale from 0 to 100, and students receive zero’s when they do not turn in assignments or miss exams. This can make recovery nearly impossible: a single 0, averaged with an 80, produces a failing grade of 40. Even an additional 100 moves the grade only to a still-failing 60! Other districts set the floor of their scale at 60. This enables students to receive a failing grade, if appropriate, but it also allows them to recover and pass the course if their effort and grades improve.

Another grading policy that can encourage students to work hard to improve is a “B or better” policy. With this policy, the only acceptable grade for major projects, papers, and tests is a B, because research shows that students who receive Bs and As in high school succeed in college. Students redo assignments or retake tests until they achieve a B or better; then the second grade is averaged with their initial grade to produce a final grade.

Over-promoting GEDs. A high school diplomas and a GED (General Educational Development) test are not the same, nor do most employers consider them equal. But schools, districts or communities can overstate the equivalence of a GED to a high school diploma. Although only students who have reached a certain age – usually 16 or 17, sometimes 18, depending on the state – are eligible to take the GED, it can seem like an easier route when a student is frustrated by a teacher, class or school situation. Students will say, “Oh, I’ll just get my GED!” and leave. The preferable path is to provide enough alternatives – targeted interventions, programs, and alternative pathways that are attractive to older students– to help them stay in school and get a standard diploma. The reason usually given is that the “stick-to-itiveness” that completing school and a standard diploma requires is an invaluable habit for later life.

Over-advocating for alternative schools. Alternative schools have an important role to play when they are thoughtfully designed to meet the needs of students who require specific supports or school structures to succeed. The same is true of the burgeoning number of virtual schools that allow students to earn credits via computer — at home, in school computer labs or in community settings. All alternative programs, real or virtual, must be accountable for their students’ achievement, so these young people do not slip away unnoticed. Because high schools can send students to alternative schools instead of providing the proper supports themselves, alternative schools can quickly become overwhelmed and suffer from very low graduation rates.

Three sets of state policies also can seriously affect who drops out and who graduates.

Early education: States, districts and individual schools can offer pre-kindergarten education to young children in order to increase the likelihood that they will show up in kindergarten fully ready to learn. Research has shown that early learning, especially for disadvantaged children, can help improve educational outcomes such as grade retention, special education placement and high school graduation. Funding can come from federal, state, local or private sources. Programs can also be administered by the schools, while provided in school buildings, childcare centers or other settings to offer parents a variety of choices.

State accountability systems and curriculum that make graduation meaningful. Some state policies for school improvement put a premium on higher test scores rather than on higher graduation rates. When graduation rates do not count for much, there is an incentive to push students with low achievement levels out of school or hold them back for several years so they do not have to take any high-stakes tests. The Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (see Chapter 2, Section 1) does begin to shift the balance to graduation rates, emphasizing a 90 percent rate by 2020. The Common Core State Standards, adopted by most states, will also keep a healthy emphasis on what students are learning, so a high school diploma will truly mean that students are ready for college or career.

Compulsory school age. Many people do not realize that even though in some states students can legally leave school at 16 or 17 – for many students a year or two before they would receive their diploma – under the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate calculations they still are counted as dropouts. Setting low school-leaving ages sends a message that dropping out is an acceptable, even natural, outcome for some students. Why shouldn’t some schools actively push out troublesome, challenging,or simply high-needs students when they reach the legal dropout age?

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama encouraged all states to require that all students stay in school until they graduate or turn 18. Many states have already done so, and others are proposing a higher compulsory school age. Research supports this policy. More than 60 percent of the states with graduation rates above the national average have compulsory school age laws, requiring students to be 17 or 18 before they can leave. If your state is one of the 18 states that still allows students to drop out at 16, you can avail yourself of the many resources to show your state how to raise the dropout age to 18.

Deeper Look

The Importance of Being in School: A Report on Absenteeism in the Nation’s Public Schools by Robert Balfanz and Vaughan Byrnes. Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University School of Education, Mary 2012

Get Schooled, a nonprofit organization dedicated to getting students to school and keeping them there. Website includes an attendance calculator that shows the impact of specific number of days missed in middle and high school.

Attendance Works, a national and state initiative to research and develop better policies and practices around attendance.

NYC Interagency Task Force on Chronic Absenteeism

Raising compulsory school age is a plank of the Civic Marshall Plan to end the dropout crisis. For more information:

Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, Annual Update 2012. Pg. 61-63.

“Does Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age Increase Graduation Rates?” by Becky Agostino and Alex Reese, November 2010, Duke University

Achieving Graduation for All: A Governors Guide to Dropout Prevention and Recovery by Daniel Princiotta and Ryan Reyna. The NGS Center for Best practices, 2009

Raising Compulsory School-Age Requirements: A Dropout Fix? NEA Policy Brief, Washington, D.C. 2012.

For guidance on how states have raised the legal dropout age, see

“The Case for Reform: Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age”

Related Civic Marshall Plan Planks

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