What's the Impact of Drop-Out Rates on High School Proficiency Scores?

Today’s Trenton Times reports on a recent Trenton School Board meeting at which board members puzzled over seemingly conflicting test scores: high school students performed better on standardized tests last year but younger students did worse than in previous years.

Specifically, last year 38% of high school students taking the HSPA reached proficiency in math and 65% reached proficiency in language art, an increase from the previous year. But at grades 3 -8, scores were flat, less than 50% proficient, and sometimes much lower than 50% proficient.  Board President Toby Sanders complained about the district’s lack of academic leadership:
“We’ve had six different literacy strategies in seven years,” Sanders said. “The hurdle you have to get over is the fact that we need to be doing something for at least three years and stick with it. We just dropped Reading Recovery. We invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Reading Recovery program. There were four aspects to it, and we used one and a half. I understand teachers when they say, ‘Here we go again.’”
One factor that doesn't get much attention when analyzing trends in high school test scores is the drop-out rate, particularly in poor urban districts that tend to have significant attrition problems as kids approach age 16.

The NJ DOE’s School Report Card shows per grade enrollment at Trenton Central High for academic year 2009-2010.

Grade 9: 600.5
Grade 10: 426
Grade 11: 300.5
Grade 12: 347

There is a large decrease in enrollment numbers between 9th and 10th grade, and a slightly smaller decease between grades 10 and 11. That’s kids dropping out. Kids take the HSPA, the high school proficiency test, in March of 11th grade; they can take it twice more in 12th grade if they fail it.

The enrollment figures on the DOE database for 2010-2011 follow a similar pattern, except for the peculiarity of 9th grade enrollment:

Grade 9: 200.5
Grade 10: 521
Grade 11: 390.5
Grade 12: 303

What’s with the 9th grade? Got me.  But, anyway, big drop-off/out trend from 10th to 11th, and a smaller one from 11th to 12th.  At most suburban schools, enrollment figures are  static from one grade to another.

The Trenton Board, reasonably enough, wants its administrators to work that high school magic into the elementary schools and bring proficiency levels up across all grades. They might look first at the impact of high numbers of kids dropping out just before they take that high school proficiency test.

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