A decade of reform brings dropout rate down only slightly

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The new rate includes students who previously had been ignored—teenagers who never made it to high school. Tracking groups, or cohorts, of students from age 13 to 19, the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that the dropout rate declined from 44.3 percent to 41.8 percent.

The former, higher number is for students who were 13 in fall 1991; the latter, lower number is for students who were 13 in fall 1994.

The dropout rate for students under 16, when compulsory school attendance ends, also decreased, from 8.1 percent to 7.3 percent for students age 15 in fall 2000.

G. Alfred Hess Jr. of Northwestern University expected more improvement. “It’s discouraging,” he says, considering that elementary test scores have risen substantially since the early 1990s. Fewer students are entering high school with test scores in the lowest percentiles, he explains, so “you would expect a big drop in the dropout rate, and their data don’t show that.”

Hess did not expect to see any decline in dropouts due to high school innovation. In his recent three-year study of Chicago high schools on academic probation, he witnessed little improvement. Chicago high schools “look an awful lot like they did 10 years ago and probably 30 years ago,” he says.

Four-year, high school dropout rates calculated by the district reflect the stagnation Hess observes, and correlate closely with the Consortium’s figures. For example, the dropout rate for the Class of 1982 was 42.5 percent. After rising briefly in the early 1990s, the rate returned to that plateau—for the Class of 1998, the most recent available, it was 41.7.

Melissa Roderick of the Consortium agrees with Hess about the state of Chicago’s high schools. But she had expected the dropout rate to rise because, under the School Board’s promotion policy, more students are being retained. “I’m still shocked,” she says. Typically, the higher the retention rate, the higher the dropout rate, she explains.

In Spring 1996, the School Board began to require 8th-graders to earn minimum standardized test scores for promotion to the next grade. The next year, it brought 3rd- and 6th-graders under the policy. Roderick, who is conducting an ongoing study of the policy’s impact, speculates that hers will be the only study of student retention “that does not find a negative effect on dropout rates, and I do not know why.”

According to Elaine Allensworth, author of the soon-to-be released Consortium study, both higher test scores and the higher retention rate are affecting the dropout rate. “To a large extent,” she says, “the two effects are canceling each other out.”

Her analysis supports Hess’ and Roderick’s view that high schools are not getting any better or worse at keeping kids in school. Given an incoming student’s age and standardized test scores, she says, “They are just as likely to drop out now as they were four years ago.”