For every course an eighth-grader in the District fails, that student becomes six percentage points less likely to graduate from high school on time. And for every 10 times a student is absent the same year, that student is four percentage points less likely to make it to the finish line.
A report released Friday identifies such early risk factors that can derail the city’s public school students from a path to graduation. Based on trends, a sobering 40 percent of today’s ninth-graders will not graduate in four years The report tries to determine who drops out of the city’s public schools, why students get off track and what kinds of programs and schools are best at helping them persevere.
The report emerged from Raise DC, a coalition of public, private and nonprofit groups that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) convened in 2012 with the goal of developing solutions to improve opportunities for District residents from birth through age 24. The city’s high school graduation rate is one of five key areas for the partnership.
Deputy Mayor for Education Abigail Smith said the District has invested significant resources in early childhood education in recent years, but that this effort turns more attention to older students.
“We want kids at the other end of the spectrum to know we haven’t forgotten them and it’s not too late,” she said.
School districts nationwide are doing similar analyses in their efforts to boost graduation rates. They are tapping into new data that allow them to track students over time and consider multiple sources, including test scores and information about attendance, behavior, course selection and grades.
A Montgomery County analysis found patterns as early as first grade that signaled a greater likelihood of dropping out, including whether students had been suspended or were performing below grade level. Arlington County invited data scientists from around the world to study its numbers and identify trouble spots or trends that could help schools intervene early.
D.C. Public Schools and individual schools have done some work on early interventions. But this report represents the most comprehensive, citywide analysis of high school dropouts, Smith said.
The report looks at the experiences and outcomes for first-time ninth-graders between 2006 and 2009, tracking more than 18,000 students in more than 40 high schools, both traditional and charter, including selective and alternative schools.
The study found that middle school performance played a significant role in whether students were on track to graduate. Some key risk factors in eighth grade predicted poor graduation rates: special education or ESL designation; being overage; low scores on standardized math or reading tests; high number of absences; and course failures.
Middle school experience was not “destiny,” though, the report said. Students also had different outcomes depending on what high school they attended.
One analysis looked at the graduation outcomes for students who performed at the top end on the city’s standardized achievement tests in eighth grade. It found that on-time graduation rates even for the highest-performing students varied widely by school, ranging from 31 percent to 100 percent.
The report found that about 25 percent of all high school students disengage at the start of their freshman year, earning few credits, racking up absences and never getting back on track. Half of these students are concentrated in seven high schools.
It also identified a small number of schools that have succeeded in graduating students considered at high risk of dropping out, but those high-performing schools enroll about 9 percent of the city’s highest-risk students.
The report does not identify the schools with the best or worst graduation rates. But school leaders from around the city have been invited to a summit on Friday to look at the data and begin digesting it. Also invited to Friday’s summit are nonprofit and foundation and business leaders who want to advance promising ideas.
Smith said the report is intended to spark conversations about possible policy solutions and share helpful practices that schools can adopt.
“The analysis is compelling and interesting, but it’s only as good as what we do with it,” she said.
Heather Wathington, chief executive of Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools and part of the leadership council for Raise DC, had an early look at her schools’ results and said the information was eye-opening. Starting this year, the school is requesting eighth-grade transcripts for all high school students who transfer in so they can better understand their risk factors and help them accordingly.
“We are an alternative school, but we believe in the future and possibilities,” she said.