A “Fail” For Washington On At-Risk K-12 Students; But There Are Fixes

'The Gaps Are Pretty Startling Here In Washington'

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Dropout prevention means high expectations, greater academic rigor, intensive support, and a focus on higher ed and career paths. Photo: College Success Foundation

The national average for high school graduation is at an all-time high of 82 percent. But, notes The Washington Roundtable in a new update to its Benchmarks For A Better Washington, the state ranks 38th of 50 in 2014 at 78.2 percent. And it’s quite a bit worse for some minorities here.

According to state data, Latino students lag the state average for high-school graduation rates by 10 percent and black students by nine percent. Low-income students have a 66 percent graduation rate.

The state is one of the few where the gap between the highest-achieving and lowest-achieving students is widening. “The gaps are pretty startling here in Washington,” said Robin Lake, director of the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

But Lake and other stakeholders say that can change.

Crucial approaches toward students at risk for dropping out include high expectations, greater academic rigor, intensive support, and a focus on higher ed and career paths. Early intervention around absenteeism and academic troubles, specifically failing classes in 9th grade, is another approach.

And yes, so are charter schools, some say.

Lake said the state needs to “create as much innovation as possible” and try various approaches, rather than expecting a fix-all solution. A combination of high expectations and intensive support for students was shown to help increase graduation rates and decrease the achievement gap, Lake said.

Disadvantaged and minority students may face discouraging assumptions about their chances for attending college. These assumptions can then lower their odds.

It’s More About Expectations Than Income Or Race

Lake, a charter school researcher, said the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) addresses the achievement gap with high expectations and supportive adults. The national network of 183 KIPP charter schools focuses on preparing students for higher education and is attended mostly by low-income students of color.

‘College Pennants On The Wall’

“They have college pennants on the wall, and they’re constantly repeating the message to kids they believe in them, and they believe they will be going to college,” she said.

Brian Jeffries, policy director for the Washington Roundtable’s education foundation, also emphasized the importance of preparing students for higher education and career opportunities. “We continue to allow students to graduate without the requisite skills for career and college readiness,” Jeffries said.

Roundtable: A Career Pathways Emphasis Is Key

Jeffries said it was important to educate students on career pathways, starting in K-12, and give them the opportunity to take advantage of high-paying jobs in Washington. Jeffries highlighted the Core Plus program, which offers high school students classes to develop skills for industries such as aerospace or construction.

Career and technical education helps students who aren’t “one-size-fits-all,” said Chris Korsmo, CEO of the League of Education Voters. She said it can both give confidence to students who have struggled in traditional classwork, and prepare them for future employment.

“It brings meaning to it,” Korsmo said. “It’s a little bit of magic for kids who otherwise don’t find that connection between what the subject or content is, and how it might be used later.”

A national survey of high school dropouts found 47 percent said uninteresting classes were a reason they dropped out.

Early Intervention On Absenteeism

Spokane middle schools have tried to address the factor of absenteeism in graduation rates. Finding that four or more unexcused absences in a year was a tipping point, they created an early warning system to identify at-risk students.

“Sometimes it was transportation, sometimes nobody was at home to get the kids going in the morning, sometimes kids were going back and forth between parents, ” said Frank Schrumpf, Spokane’s director of on-time graduation.

Schrumpf said anxiety and nervousness, sometimes related to bullying, were common reasons for truancy and the schools would match students with nurses or mental health practicioners to help. Ensuring 7th and 8th graders were attending classes meant they wouldn’t be behind when they reached their critical freshman year of high school.

Careful: Suspension, Expulsion Can Pave The Way For Dropping Out

Even when students want to attend class, they may miss time in school due to disciplinary issues. Students of color face suspension and expulsion at higher rates. Lake said improving the state’s graduation ranking means taking a closer look at this.

“Once kids are out school for a while, they’re more likely to give up and drop out,” she said.

Latino/Hispanic, black and Native American children are also more likely to be in poverty, which strongly correlates with drop-out rates, according to a report by the Washington Student Achievement Council. The WSAC report found 31 percent of students who drop out never went past their freshman year of high school.

Economically disadvantaged students are likely to face significant stressors, such as homelessness, which contributes to absenteeism. Four in ten Washington children are classified as low-income by the National Center for Children in Poverty.

In the Tacoma school district, low-income students were 21 percent less likely to graduate than their peers. The school district implemented an early warning system to identify students in 8th grade at a high risk of dropping out and works to make sure they get through 9th grade.

Pinpointing Challenged 9th-Graders For Academic Help

Tacoma also looked for 9th graders who had failed classes to give them assistance before they fell too far behind, and to put more emphasis on college. The district also worked with community partners to help tutor and mentor low-income students. Tacoma public schools reached a graduation rate of 82 percent last year, after five years of increases.

Some Bright Spots

The CRPE, after examining 50 major cities across the U.S., found some cause for hope on closing the achievement gap.

In 20 of those cities, black students took the SAT or ACT as often – or more often – than their white peers, and Latinos in 17 of the cities took the college entrance exams at the same rate or better. Finding out what caused these cities to beat the odds was beyond the scope of their research, the CRPE said.

An encouraging note in Washington is that black 8th graders rank fifth-highest in reading and seventh-highest in math, compared to other states. Jeffries noted that the 8th grade math tests are good indicators of future success in more complex algebraic thinking.

The Roundtable in their recent update reported that although Washington scores among the top 10 states in the nation in 8th grade math performance, ranking 7th overall, “that success is tempered” for 2015 because just 39 percent scored proficient or better. The Roundtable also noted the state has also “moved closer to the bottom 10 states for bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita, ranking 39th with 4.6 degrees awarded per 1,000 residents in 2013.”

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