Three Ways to Look at Haverhill School Dropouts

Does Haverhill have a dropout problem? If so, how bad is it? And what can be done about it? Statistics on dropout rates from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) can help us answer these questions.

At the Reach Higher community forum at Hunking School on April 26, 2017, I presented statistics that show Haverhill’s irregular and persistently high dropout rates. I presented dropout rates calculated with the cohort (or longitudinal method) showing the percentage of dropouts among a class or cohort of students over the four-year period from 9th to 12th grade. Some have asked about why I used that particular measure rather than annual dropout rates or other measures. In this blog post I review the evidence on Haverhill dropouts from three types of measures. I also note the implications for addressing Haverhill’s dropout issue in the 2017-2018 school budget.

Cohort Based Measures Show Haverhill’s Irregularly High Dropout Rates

Cohort based measures show what percentage of a class cohort starting at grade 9 have graduated or dropped out four years later. The adjusted cohort formula adjusts for transfers in, so schools are not held accountable for students they did not serve from 9th grade on. Adjusted cohort graduation and dropout rates have been deemed more accurate than other calculations in the ability to assess student results over time and since 2011 the federal government has mandated that states calculate and report cohort rates to support comparisons across states. For Massachusetts schools and districts, these rates are presented on the DESE website graduation rate page. The user can select rates by district or school, by year, adjusted or unadjusted (for transfers), for more than 10 student groupings.

Over the ten years from 2006 to 2016, Lawrence reduced its four-year cohort adjusted dropout rate from 35.8 percent to 10.8 percent, while Salem reduced its rate from 12.5 to 4.6 percent. In the same period Haverhill’s dropout rate improved in some periods but slid back in others to end up in 2016 at 11.3 percent, not much different from where it started at (11.5 percent). Haverhill’s lack of net progress on the overall measure and other data presented on the DESE website show that Haverhill’s has been much less successful than other Massachusetts cities in preventing dropouts over the four-year high school period.

Main point: Cohort based measures provide the best way to assess how well schools prevent dropouts over time and get students through to graduation. However, one has to wait until a cohort completes its senior year for the rate to be reported. Looking at a cohort rate is something like looking through a telescope at light from a star that was emitted years ago. We can turn to some other measures of dropouts to get more current, if less complete, information on student dropouts.

Annual Dropout Measures Show Slow Decline in Dropout Rates, Remaining More Than Twice State Average

Annual dropout rates indicate how many students drop out anytime during one school year and do not return by October of the next year. Annual rates are reported by district and school, year, and student group in the DESE website Dropout Report. For 2015-16 Haverhill’s district annual dropout rate of students in grades 9 to 12 was 5.9 percent, compared with the statewide rate of 1.9%. Among the 301 reporting school districts Haverhill ranks among the worst – 289 out of 301. Of the 26 Gateway cities, only New Bedford and Chelsea (cities with much lower income levels) had a higher annual dropout rate in 2015-2016. The dropout rate for Haverhill High School alone is 4.4 percent; this rate for HHS is lower than the district rate because it does not include the Haverhill district’s alternative and TEACH schools.

Haverhill’s annual has dropout rate has come down from higher levels of 2008 and 2011 but it remains more than twice the state average. (See graph below)

With annual measures (as opposed to cohort measures), students who drop out are removed from the analysis in subsequent years. So a particular class that lost most of its dropouts in the ninth grade may show low dropout rates in the following three high school years. Because these rates are affected by on the timing of dropouts, annual measures can do a poor job of representing overall student success.

Main point: Haverhill’s dropout rates are higher than almost all of the other Massachusetts school districts. Single-year dropout rates do not well represent the experience of a class over time and are unreliable indicators of overall school and district performance.

Annual Measures by Graduating Class Show Temporary Progress, Then Slipping Back

Annual dropout rates are also reported by grade. With data from successive years, this enables us to piece together the experience of a group through the most recent available year (see graph). Annual year dropout rates vary greatly from class to class and year to year within a class. A particular class may experience a high dropout rate one year and a low dropout rate the next (after the most-at-risk students have dropped out).

We see the Haverhill Class of 2017 is on track toward a lower cohort dropout rates than other recent graduating classes. Congratulations HHS Class of 2017! During their critical middle school to high school transition period this class benefitted from Haverhill’s participation in the grant funded Youth Engaged for Success (YES), a federally funded program aimed at keeping kids in school, which was awarded for five years from 2010 to 2015. However, this program ended when the grant funding ran out and we see a spike upward in the dropout rate for ninth graders who have transitioned to high school since this program ended.

Main point: Looking at annual dropout rate by graduating class for the past several years, we see evidence of lower dropout experiences for the HHS class of 2017, which benefitted from the YES program during its transition and early high school years. But these advances do not appear to be sustained for subsequent classes.

Overall Conclusion

Each of the three types of dropout measures sheds some light on Haverhill’s dropout problem. To answer the questions posed at the beginning of this blog post:

Do we have a problem? Dropout rates have been declining nationally, across the state, and in Gateway cities. Haverhill has participated in this decline and we expect cohort statistics will show improvement when they are posted for the class of 2017. However, Haverhill dropout rates remain more than double the state average. By nearly all measures, Haverhill dropout rates are high relative to other Massachusetts cities with comparable income and population characteristics. Haverhill’s dropout rates have been inconsistent over time. Annual results by class seem to suggest that the lower dropout for this year’s graduating class, but show a recent spike in 9th grade dropouts in each of the past two years. This suggests a continuing problem, particularly in the middle-school/high-school transition period.

How bad is it? Haverhill ranks near the very bottom of Massachusetts school districts – worse than 289 of 301 Massachusetts school districts. That the improvement observed in this year’s graduating class is not evident in data from the current 9th grade class does not bode well for future reports.

What can we do about it? We do not have to look far to see how to do better. Lawrence and Salem provide examples of cities that have significantly reduced dropouts and improved graduation rates. And right here in Haverhill we have seen ups and downs that may be related to changes dropout prevention efforts at the Haverhill High School, through the YES program and other efforts. One look at the literature shows how difficult it can be to address the many complex interrelated issues that affect dropouts. But there are many resources to work with. See, just for example, this School-Level Approach to Dropout Prevention, or the APEX program in New Hampshire or this from Washington State and dropout prevention resource centers at Clemson University and Johns Hopkins.

It will be a real challenge to find the best, most effective, most affordable methods that will work in Haverhill. As we consider the 2017-18 school budget, the school committee should consider earmarking specific support for an evidence-based program to reduce Haverhill’s dropout rate in a cost-effective way. By making such a commitment and sustaining it over time, we can give all our students a better shot at a successful life with a diploma in hand.