Nov 28 2018

Four-Year Graduation Rates Leave Off Where the Real Work Begins

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This blog is part of the series, Realizing ESSA’s Promise, which provides insight into ESSA’s impact on students and schools.

In the past several iterations of state and federal accountability systems, high schools have been judged by their 4-year graduation rate, among other measures. While this is a seemingly innocuous data point (after all, the classic high school narrative flows from freshman to senior in 4 years), measuring school success by how many students fit this typical profile has some harsh consequences. In particular, accountability systems that rely on a 4-year graduation rate discourage schools from continuing to offer services, support, and courses to students who take longer to earn a diploma. Instead, we should be doing everything we can to encourage and support schools in serving their highest need students, not penalizing them for doing so.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), for the first time, schools, districts, and states have the opportunity to move beyond this narrow definition of success by adding extended-year graduation rates to their accountability systems. So far, 35 states have done just that, taking an important step in ensuring that every student succeeds.

Imagine, if you will, the dance that many high school educators and students perform. A student—let’s call her Jessica—comes into high school as a freshman. Perhaps she is overage, due to an immigration journey. Perhaps she is working full time in addition to studying, to help support her family. Perhaps she is expected to get her younger siblings to school each day and rarely is able to attend her first period class. Jessica works hard and succeeds in her first several years of high school. By the time she is a senior she has learned English, has gained some skills, and is now 18.

But while some of Jessica’s contemporaries may be preparing to walk the stage, she isn’t ready to graduate. Instead, she needs one more year of credits, since she failed a class (the one she missed while taking care of her siblings) and was out for several weeks. The pressure for Jessica to work full time is enormous, and she tells her teachers and principal that she is dropping out in order to work. They plead with her to stay and finish. Sure, she will need to study for a 5th year to make up the credits and will not graduate with her friends, but the value of a diploma for her future earnings is enormous.

The school finds ways to offer credit recovery, a modified schedule, and extended learning supports. Jessica finds ways to change her work schedule to continue studying and stays in school for a 5th year—a hard-won success on both sides. If a state only recognizes a 4-year graduation rate, however, this hard working 5th year senior is a dropout and is counted as a failure of the school supporting her.

In my 7 years as principal of San Francisco International High School (SFIHS), we performed this dance to keep students in school and on track for a diploma countless times. SFIHS is a San Francisco Unified School District public school serving entirely recently arrived immigrant youth. It is also part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools. In a city with a high cost of living, and where many of our students are unaccompanied, staying in school is an economic luxury that comes at a great cost.

For SFIHS, the key to keeping students until graduation is in reimagining what a typical high school trajectory looks like. Using structures such as a 5th-year hybrid day program (which allows time for students to take high school and college courses, for example), a support year for high-risk graduates, early college dual enrollment, and internships, we have been blurring the line of where high school ends and life begins. This has enabled us to keep more students enrolled longer and increase the number of students who not only get a high school diploma, but are set up for long-term success.

 For San Francisco International High School, the key to keeping students until graduation is in re-imagining what a typical high school trajectory looks like.

In states that use a 5-, 6-, or even 7-year graduation rate, instead of being penalized for Jessica not graduating in 4 years, the school is celebrated for graduating her in 5 years. In a system using extended-year graduation rates, schools are encouraged not to give up on their students. Using a 4-year graduation rate as a key marker for school accountability makes it a liability for schools to continue to support students who have a longer journey to a diploma. These students are often the most vulnerable in our schools, including English learners, students with special needs, and homeless and transitional youth.

For high-school-age newcomers, the task is a remarkably large lift. In 4 years, they need to learn English, learn the high school content standards, acclimate to a new culture and setting, and often learn literacy skills that may have been missed due to an interruption in their education. These are resilient and powerful young people who are up to the task. However, demanding that this task be done in 4 years and directly or indirectly penalizing schools that allow more time for this feat serves neither our schools nor our students.

Research suggests that for newcomers in particular, measuring success by allowing for a longer timeline for graduation yields significantly higher graduation rates. For example, one study found that the 4-year graduation rate of the New York City schools in the Internationals High School Network was 63.4%. The 5th-year graduation rate jumped to 81%, and by the 7th year, the graduation rate was 88.7%. In addition, research on language acquisition supports the idea that more time is needed to measure academic success, suggesting that academic English takes 4 to 7 years to attain, not 2 to 3. Expecting a student who is brand new to English as a 9th grader to have oral and written mastery of the language in 4 years—while certainly possible—is not an appropriate place to set the bar for success.

The extended supports at SFIHS offer a way to make sure that our goal for our students is not only a high school diploma, but a successful life after graduation. Preparing a student for college, career, and civic life is not always a 4-year journey. Accountability systems that use extended graduation rates support and encourage schools to take additional time and offer the scaffolds and supports students need to succeed—in high school and beyond.

Julie Kessler is the former principal of San Francisco International High School. She is currently part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Innovation Lab



Julie Kessler, Program Administrator, Innovation and Design, San Francisco Unified School District, and former principal of San Francisco International High School.