The role played by testing in the nation's public school system has been increasing steadily—and growing more complicated—for more than 20 years. The Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity (CEETE) was formed to monitor the effects of education reform, particularly testing, on students at risk for academic failure because of poverty, lack of proficiency in English, disability, or membership in population subgroups that have been educationally disadvantaged. The committee recognizes the important potential benefits of standards-based reforms and of test results in revealing the impact of reform efforts on these students. We also recognize the valuable role graduation tests can potentially play in making requirements concrete, in increasing the value of a diploma, and in motivating students and educators alike to work to higher standards. At the same time, we note that educational testing is a complicated endeavor, that reality can fall far short of the model, and that testing cannot by itself provide the desired benefits. If testing is improperly used, it can have negative effects, such as encouraging school leaving, that can hit disadvantaged students hardest. The committee was concerned that the recent proliferation of high school exit examinations could have the unintended effect of increasing dropout rates among students whose rates are already far higher than the average, and has taken a close look at what is known about influences on dropout behavior and at the available data on dropouts and school completion.
A key to understanding dropout behavior, the factors that may influence it, and also the difficulties facing those who try to measure it, is recognizing that dropping out of school is a process rather than an isolated event. Attributes of schooling, individual personality traits, home environment, and the economic context in which students live all influence their progress through school. Isolating a single cause for this process is thus nearly impossible. However, the factors most associated with dropping out suggest strategies to encourage students at risk to stay in school.
Research supports common sense in showing that dropping out is a major life event to which a host of influences contribute in the course of a young person's life. The significance of dropping out has also shifted over time. During the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century, a young person who failed to complete 12 years of schooling by the age of 18 or 19 was hardly unusual, and the existence of many such young people was not identified as a social problem. Since roughly the middle of the twentieth century, however, teenagers have been expected to stay in school until graduation, and the employment prospects for those who do not have dimmed.
At the same time, avenues for young people have proliferated. Students who opt out or are pushed out (by school discipline policies or other school actions) of traditional high schools can attend alternative programs or take the General Educational Development (GED) Test instead of graduating—although these alternatives are often not equivalent to a standard high-school diploma in terms of a student's future opportunities for education and employment. Students drop in or out of school or may return to school or take the GED years after their expected graduation dates. Moreover, in a society characterized by both high rates of immigration and high rates of internal mobility, students frequently move among schools, districts, and states.
Those circumstances make it particularly difficult for both researchers and school systems to define and count dropouts. As a consequence, a variety of means for doing so have been devised for different purposes. Results, even for the same jurisdiction, can seem to be in conflict when different means of counting are used, and observers can be left either misinformed or confused about the scope and nature of the problem. Research
ers have developed a number of definitions of dropouts and a number of ways of collecting information about them. These definitions and methods are not widely understood. Debates about the effects of testing and other reforms have been significantly complicated by the lack of clarity in dropout statistics. Moreover, data on several important aspects of school completion are not currently collected. The committee has considered this situation and offers five recommendations regarding data collection. The committee recognizes that the burden of data collection for states and districts is already considerable, but we conclude that there is no substitute for reliable information about these important issues.
While the consequences of dropping out of school have been well established, as have the ways in which earning a GED credential in lieu of a traditional diploma may affect later outcomes, the nature and implications of other alternatives to graduation have not. In view of the significant numbers of students who currently pursue these alternatives, it is important to understand what these alternatives involve.
Recommendation 1: The committee recommends to states and districts and to both researchers and funders of research that priority be placed on collecting key data that are disaggregated to allow monitoring of such populations as different minority groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities. These data should cover:
- which students, and how many students, are receiving credentials, including GED certification, that are different from the generally prevailing standards for high-school graduation;
- the nature of the academic requirements that lead to such credentials, and the extent to which those requirements are different from the generally prevailing standards for high school graduation;
- the processes by which students are directed to or choose to pursue such alternate credentials; and
- the later educational and employment outcomes for the students who receive these credentials.
Studies show that although GED certification can be beneficial for many students, it has less value than a standard diploma as a tool for pursuing both education and employment. It is important that policy makers, educators, parents, and students be aware of the distinctions among available credentials.
Recommendation 2: The committee recommends that officials at the school, district, and state levels disaggregate the data they already collect on school completers by the type of certificate awarded, including those awarded for passing the GED, and should make clear what knowledge and skills are represented by each credential. States, schools, and districts should also distinguish between GED holders and high school graduates in reporting data on school completion. These data should be disaggregated to allow monitoring of such populations as different minority groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.
The committee concludes that current means of collecting district-, state-, and national-level data on students' progress through school and into the workforce, while valuable, are insufficient to inform policy makers and the public.
Recommendation 3: The committee recommends that policy makers, researchers, and funders of research consider the urgent need for the following kinds of additional data (disaggregated to allow monitoring of such populations as different minority groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities):
- data that allow valid comparisons across states and, possibly, across smaller jurisdictions;
- longitudinal data that allow tracking of a greater diversity of student pathways, such as participation in alternatives to traditional secondary schooling and the earning of alternatives to the traditional diploma;
- data that allow separate reporting on the progress of students who take the GED or follow other alternate pathways, both while they are in school and after they leave school, whether they are employed, unemployed, or participating in postsecondary education;
- data that allow improved tracking of students at risk for dropping out because of factors that may be apparent in elementary and middle school, such as temporary dropping out in early grades, absenteeism, retention in grade, and the like. Such data could assist jurisdictions in identifying populations of students in need of intervention and in evaluating the success of their efforts to intervene. Such data could also be used to improve public understanding of school completion and the demands on school systems.
Part of the difficulty with currently available data is that they are collected by a variety of entities for a variety of purposes at the state, district, and school levels, as well as at the federal level. The adoption of a single measure that would allow comparisons across jurisdictions would address some of the difficulties in the current policy discussion, but it would have negative consequences as well. The various measures exist because of the complexities of what needs to be measured, and each provides valuable information. CEETE concludes that more, not less, information about dropout behavior is needed, but believes that greater clarity and coordination is needed as well.
Recommendation 4: The committee recommends that the U.S. Department of Education provide leadership and oversight in efforts to coordinate data collection and establish long-term objectives for collecting what is needed. Data available from the U.S. Department of Labor should be considered as part of this effort.
In considering the need for additional data about school completion, it is important to note one population of students who have not traditionally been classed among dropouts: students who complete the requirements for twelfth grade but are unable to pass a test that is required for a diploma. More detailed information about how many students are in this category in each of the states that rely on exit examinations is needed. Improved understanding of the possible differences between these students and students who drop out of school before the end of twelfth grade, and about the effects of failing the exam on these students' future education and employment will be an important part of understanding the effects of exit exams.
Recommendation 5: The committee recommends that jurisdictions that administer exit exams collect detailed data on students who complete the twelfth grade but fail exit exams and so do not graduate (disaggregated to allow monitoring of such populations as different minority groups, English-language learners, and students with disabilities).
FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH DROPPING OUT
Though proof of causation is elusive, much is known about the factors most closely associated with dropping out:
- A number of school-related factors, such as high concentrations of low-achieving students and less-qualified teachers, for example, are associated with higher dropout rates. Other factors, such as small school settings and individualized attention to students, are associated with lower dropout rates.
- Many aspects of home life and socioeconomic status are associated with dropout behavior.
- Typically, contributing factors interact in a gradual process of disengagement from school over many years.
Ongoing patterns of absenteeism, poor grades, and poor achievement on tests even early in elementary school are linked to dropping out later on. Retention in grade is clearly associated with subsequent decisions to drop out of school. Other characteristics of schooling, such as the composition of the school and its climate, practices, and resources may affect dropout behavior as well. Many of these factors suggest that dropout prevention programs targeted at high school or even middle school students hold less promise for helping students than do earlier interventions. Thus, early intervention for students who show signs of academic difficulty or disengagement from school is very important.
A number of factors outside of school have also been associated with an increased likelihood of dropping out, and the evidence suggests that these factors can interact to increase the risk. Hispanic students are the most likely to drop out, and African American students are more likely to than whites. Students whose families' incomes are in the lowest 20 percent of the population are far more likely to drop out than are nonpoor students. An increased risk of academic difficulty and dropping out is also evident for students who live in single-parent families, those from large families, and those who become parents themselves.
Conclusion: The committee concludes that identifying students with risk factors early in their careers (preschool through elementary school) and providing them with ongoing support, remediation, and counseling are likely to be the most promising means of encouraging them to stay in school. Using individual risk factors to identify likely dropouts with whom to intervene, particularly among students at the ninth-grade level and beyond, is difficult. Evidence about interventions done at this stage suggests that their effectiveness is limited.
THE ROLE OF TESTING
Distinctions among different kinds of tests are key to understanding the effects they may have on students. The effects of more rigorous, content-based tests may be very different from the effects of basic-skills tests. The way in which testing programs are aligned with curricular requirements and standards, as well as other aspects of the educational system, are also central for understanding their role and effects. To be truly informative, evaluations of the impact of exit tests should clearly distinguish among different kinds of tests and those used for different purposes.
At this early stage in the progress of many state reforms there is insufficient evidence to determine conclusively what effect, if any, exit examinations have on dropout rates. Indeed, the likelihood is that the effects of these tests will vary significantly, depending on how they are constructed and implemented and on how their results are used. However, there is reason to believe that high-stakes testing at any level may sometimes be used in ways that have unintended harmful effects on students at particular risk for academic failure because of poverty, lack of proficiency in English, disability, and membership in population subgroups that have been educationally disadvantaged. Although the precise relationship between graduation testing and dropping out of school is still in dispute, it is clear that retention in grade is a very strong predictor of dropping out.
Conclusion: Given the difficulty and cost of preventing students from dropping out once the process of disengagement from school has begun, it is clear that neither requiring a student to retake the grade nor promoting a failing student is, by itself, a sufficient response to his or her academic difficulty. The value and importance of addressing struggling students' difficulties directly and specifically as soon as they are apparent are paramount. Moreover, the strong association between retention in grade and dropping out suggests that retention is usually not a beneficial intervention.