How Mobility Impacts School Graduation Rates: What the data tell us

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Written by: Jessica Shopoff
Aug. 10, 2017

This post is a guest post by Jessica Shopoff, M. Ed., Accountability Specialist at K12 Inc.

It’s that time of year again – when new graduates, like birds, prepare to take flight out of their protective high school nests and soar into the seemingly limitless real world. However, as this post pointed out, far too many of our “birds” are failing to take flight at all and instead are dropping out without ever successfully completing a high school diploma.

While great attention has focused on this issue since the dawn of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era and graduation rates have increased according to the latest “Building a Grad Nation” report, there is great speculation about whether or not those increases point to true improvement in graduating students or flaws in the system that allow schools to better hide dropouts, as seen in multiple states including California and Florida. If our current system encourages the hiding of dropouts in alternative schools to improve graduation rates, are we really measuring what matters? How do we drive schools to be accountable for every student?

This post explores the flaws in the system that allowed schools to show improvement in graduation rates, possibly without graduating a higher percentage of students. Ultimately, because we are not accounting for a student’s graduation status until year four, we provide a loophole by which a school may hold a student for three unsuccessful years before simply handing him off to another school to be penalized for failure to graduate him on time. This is obviously problematic for any school, but what happens if a school receives dozens of these credit-deficient new high school students each year? Or maybe even hundreds?

To further understand the impact this might have on schools, let’s look at this analysis completed using data for all Oregon high schools. Both four-year cohort graduation rate and mobility rate, the percentage of students who are new to the school or leave the school, are calculated and published for all high schools by the Oregon Department of Education. When you look at these two rates together, something very fascinating emerges.

As is evidenced above, it is very apparent that there is a strong negative correlation between graduation rate and mobility rate – meaning the higher your mobility rate, the lower your graduation rate. In fact, the bottom 25 percent of schools by graduation rate have an average mobility rate that is more than four times the average mobility rate of the highest 25 percent of schools. This isn’t terribly surprising, given research on the impact of mobility on student achievement and success. However, it does lead to the question, “Are we truly measuring how successfully a school is graduating students or are we simply calculating a rate that is a proxy for the underlying mobility of the student population?”

Given this analysis, it should be apparent that we need to rethink our approach to graduation rate and take a more student-centered approach, as outlined in more detail here. Instead of waiting to capture a graduation status for a student after year four, what if we held schools accountable for adequate progress toward graduation for all students in year one, year two, year three and year four?  What if we removed the flaw in the system that allows schools and states to show an increased graduation rate, while transferring credit-deficient students to other schools and hiding them?

Just like a mother bird watches her baby birds for milestones along the way, a few flaps of the wings or the ability to stay off the ground for a few seconds before she just pushes them out of the nest, we too need to find a better way to monitor the progress of our “birds.”  As mentioned here, this type of ongoing tracking would require improvement of state data systems, but our students are worth it.  Waiting until after year four when it is time for them to fly and then checking their status only to realize that they are completely unprepared for the seemingly limitless real world is at best, illogical, and at worst, cruel.


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Jessica Shopoff

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