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No Child Left Behind? What about the dropouts?

In large numbers, students still disconnect from school when they hit adolescence.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The test-driven reforms inspired by NCLB are working. At least, that was the conclusion then-SRC chair James Nevels drew in August, following the release of the most recent PSSA test results. Nevels told a meeting of principals “that the core reforms this SRC has enacted have truly taken hold and given our students and teachers the tools they need to be successful.”

He wasn’t alone. This verdict was echoed by elected officials, editorial writers, and many observers on the city’s education scene.

The evidence for this optimism is PSSA data. Since 2002 the number of Philadelphia students who test as proficient and advanced has steadily risen – from 24 percent to 42 percent in reading and 19 percent to 45 percent in math. The continued presence of large numbers of students who test at basic or below remains a problem, but the trend is upwards, proponents of NCLB might argue.

What’s wrong with this picture is that it doesn’t address why we have such a high and persistent dropout rate and why students’ test scores tail off sharply when they hit high school.

The elephant in the room

Barely half of Philadelphia’s high school students graduate on time, and the number who graduate after 6 years is short of 60 percent, according to a study by Ruth Curran Neild and Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University released last year. High dropout rates in urban high schools, nationally as well as locally, are a long-time problem. NCLB has had little impact on this critical failure.

While the reforms initiated by the SRC have improved literacy and math proficiency in elementary schools, the picture at the high school level is not so encouraging. The numbers of students in 11th grade who test at advanced or proficient has risen, but the gains have been modest, especially when compared to the lower grades. Over the last five years, the numbers of 11th graders testing at advanced or proficient has inched up by only 6 percent in reading and 7 percent in math. Meanwhile, there has been almost no progress in reducing the number of 11th graders who score below basic – still about half of all students.

District officials have touted increases in the numbers of high schools making “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), but as an indication of progress this is largely illusory. Three-fourths of Philadelphia’s high school students attend schools that failed to make AYP, typically large comprehensive high schools. Only 15 percent of students attend high schools where the majority of the students were proficient in reading, mostly special admission and magnet schools.

The students who struggle to reach even basic levels in 11th grade are the very same students whom we held up as success stories when they were in elementary schools. And many of the poorest performers in elementary school drop out before they get to the 11th grade, where testing occurs.

What’s the problem?

Everyone agrees that high schools are falling short, but a case can be made that the problem begins earlier.

Considerable research has documented a falling off in learning and student achievement as students reach adolescence. The groundbreaking Neild/Balfanz study of dropouts found that already in eighth grade, over one-third of all students had one or more of the risk factors that put them at high risk of dropping out – they received a final grade of F in math or English or were absent 20 percent or more of the time. The majority of dropouts came from this group.

This data comes from before 2002, and since then middle grade test scores have improved substantially. But there continues to be a significant increase in absenteeism, a key indicator of student disengagement, as students move from the primary to the middle grades.

Absenteeism is lowest in 4th grade. The rate increases by one-third between fourth and eighth grade, and almost doubles again in ninth grade. It continues to be the case that a significant number of students do well in the primary grades, begin to lose interest and fall behind in the middle grades, and stop going to school in droves when they reach high school. Current “data-driven” reform strategies haven’t adequately tackled that problem.

In contrast, underlying the small schools movement – like the middle schools movement of the 1980s – is the understanding that adolescents have particular needs, and that education needs to take these into account. Young people want greater independence and more relevance. A curriculum that is strong on real-life connections and problem-solving, a school climate that promotes trust and responsibility, and the active involvement of teachers and staff with their students are the marks of student-centered small schools.

Creating the kind of curriculum and climate that will overcome the alienation of students who now experience school as failure, boredom, and frustration is not easy. It will never be done as an add-on to a heavy diet of test prep.

In the Hornbeck era, Philadelphia schools were encouraged to create small learning communities (SLCs) that were supposed to embody these small-school values. As is so often the case with top-down change, it happened mostly in form and only infrequently in substance. But at my school we got grant funds to create viable, thematically based small learning communities. I was part of a four-person team that kept the same students from sixth through eighth grade and organized instruction thematically. We saw improved attendance, behavior, and engagement in learning from our students.

The teachers remember this period as our “best years.” As for the students, there is no data I can cite. But I ran into a student a couple of years ago who had successfully graduated from high school and was supporting a family. After we exchanged pleasantries, tears welled up in his eyes, and he told me that his years in middle school as part of our team had been the best years of his life. When I probed further, he said he felt valued, supported, and successful.

Too many students, once they make the passage from the primary grades, do not feel valued, supported, and successful – and act accordingly. But this lesson is, at best, an afterthought for clipboard-wielding, data-driven NCLB proponents.

When our school was one of a number of schools slated for restructuring in 2002 as part of the state takeover, our leadership team met with the administrator for restructured schools. I told him we had done some things right, like SLCs, and we needed to try to retain these strengths. He waved his hand, said we had tried “all that,” and it was time to move on.

Well, we’ve moved on, and while some real gains have been made, there is little evidence that a high-stakes, test-driven program is going to turn our high schools (or our middle schools) around. Many things are needed, including a major infusion of resources. But we also need to look at the essential lessons of successful small schools and small learning communities and make them a central focus of school reform.