High-Stakes Testing and Dropout Rates

High-Stakes Testing and Dropout Rates

Dropout rates and high-stakes testing receive their share of media attention, but the likely connection between the two is rarely discussed outside of education circles. Yet much recent research and anecdotal evidence suggest at least a correlation between high-stakes testing of the sort mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and dropout rates. Students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, appear to be dropping out of school earlier and in much greater numbers than previously believed, and high-stakes testing may be a leading cause. Moreover, schools overestimate graduation rates, and NCLB actually provides incentives for schools to encourage students, particularly students expected to perform poorly, either to drop out or transfer before taking their proficiency exams.

Dropout Data

High school graduation rates are notoriously difficult to calculate, and for decades there has been no national commitment to tracking them and no consensus about how best to do that. As a result, many school districts and states fail to keep accurate graduation data. Historically, the Center for Educational Statistics (CES) and the Current Population Survey (CPS) provided the most authoritative dropout figures. However, in recent years, a growing body of evidence suggests the nation’s actual high school graduation rate is much lower than the 85 percent figure reported by CES and CPS for decades. For example, data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) in 1998 indicated that approximately 35 percent of the senior cohort was no longer enrolled when the TIMMS was administered in the spring of what should have been these students’ senior year. This figure is very similar to more recent data reported by Christopher Swanson of the nonpartisan Urban Institute. Swanson’s tabulations place the graduation rate for the high school class of 2001 at 68 percent nationally. When Swanson’s figures are broken down by race and ethnicity, the numbers become even more distressing. According to his research, whereas approximately 76.8 percent of Asian students and 74.9 percent of white students finish high school, these figures drop to 53.2 percent for Hispanic students, 51.1 percent for Native American students, and 50.2 percent for black students.

These numbers do not appear to be unique to the high school class of 2001. Several independent analyses confirm that the nation’s graduation rate has been in decline since at least 1984 and has plunged even further since the 1990s (a decade when many states began implementing high-stakes exams as a graduation requirement). Not only do actual graduation rates appear to be much lower than previously believed, and in rapid descent, but there is also evidence that many students are dropping out of school early in their high school career rather than toward the end. Moreover, schools are more likely to hold students back...