Benchmark Blog

Patterns for Improving Graduation Rates: Lessons from Ten Years of Experience in Gateway Cities

Haverhill’s relative standing in school performance among Gateway Cities has been slipping. But what do we know about the cities that are doing better? If Haverhill wants to improve its graduation rates it can look for examples in other cities that have recently improved their graduation rates.

Gateway Cities with Graduation Rates Similar to Haverhill in 2006

As reported in data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) for 2006, 11 of the 26 Massachusetts Gateway Cities had graduation rates (four-year cohort adjusted) within 5 percentage points of Haverhill’s at 77.0 percent. By focusing on these particular Gateway cities we exclude cities such as Quincy, which already had a much higher graduation rate in 2006, and Lawrence that started with a much lower rate and showed substantial improvement under receivership. Despite a similar start, the experience of these 11 cities diverged over the ensuing decade. By 2016, six of these cities had improved their graduation rate by more than 10 percentage points, four had improved rates by 5 to 10 percentage points, and one (besides Haverhill) had improved less than 5 percentage points. In this post I look at DESE data to see what distinguishes the top performers from those at the bottom.

For this report I have divided these 11 cities into three group based on improvement from 2006 to 2016. The most improved group, which includes Attleboro, Pittsfield, Revere, Salem, Taunton, and Worcester, started with an average graduation rate in 2006 of 75.2 percent. The middle group includes Brockton, Fitchburg, Leominster, Lynn, Malden, and Westfield with an average graduation rate in 2006 of 76.9 percent. The lowest group includes just one city, Lowell, with a graduation rate in 2006 of 79.0%.

Overall Trends

In the graph below, we can see Haverhill’s graduation rate ended the decade where it started while all of the other groups improved, with the highest performers averaging an improvement of 12 percentage points over ten years, starting 2 points below Haverhill and finishing 10 points above. Clearly improvement is possible for Gateway Cities with graduation rates similar to Haverhill.

Low-Income Students

For low income students, we see substantially greater improvement in graduation rates in this period when federal and state program were targeted to low income students. Haverhill’s rate for low-income students improved by 6 percentage points, but the most-improved group improved their graduation rates for low income students by 20 percentage points. It should be noted that the number of low-income students in Haverhill’s high school cohort increased by 122 percent in this period, no doubt putting a strain on the schools to address the needs of this group. But the number increased in other cities as well, and even at the end of the period, the percent of students classified as low income in Haverhill (60%) was not greater than the percentage in the most-improved cities (75%).

Hispanic Students

The most improved among the Gateway Cities whose 2006 graduation rates were similar to Haverhill showed marked improvement in graduation rates for Hispanic students – 22 percentage points, from 67% to 89%. This group also showed a 103% increase in Hispanic enrollment in this period. This suggests that success with the growing number of Hispanic students is an important part of the overall improvement among the top performers. This contrasts with Haverhill, which showed a drop in graduation rates for Hispanic students to 61% in 2016, down from 71% in 2006.

Student/Teacher Ratios

Another measure of resources is the student/teacher ratio. Here we need to shift our thinking a bit as the higher the student/teacher ratio the lower the resources per student. We do not see dramatic differences among the graduation-improvement groups. In all three groups, the number of students per teacher increased somewhat, but the increase was smaller for those most improved (an additional 0.5 student per teacher) compared with the middle and least improved groups (with more than 1 additional student per teacher). Haverhill actually decreased the number of students per teacher and ended with only 0.4 more students per teacher than average for the most improved. This suggests that Haverhill’s under-performance on graduation rates from 2006 to 2016 s is not attributable to its somewhat higher student /teacher ratios.

Teacher Salaries

The chart below suggest that higher teacher salaries have not been the driver of graduation rate improvements. Among Gateway cities with graduation rates similar to Haverhill in 2006, the most improved group ended in 2015 with teacher salaries lower than the middle-improved group. Haverhill, however, become an outlier in teacher salaries in this period, starting in the middle and ending well below the average of the other groups. So, while salary levels do not explain the variation in improvement for these cities as a whole, we cannot rule out markedly lower salaries as a possible barrier to improvement for Haverhill.

Per Pupil Spending

The most improved group also supported their schools with greater increases in per-pupil spending. Haverhill started the period somewhat below the others and by 2015 was spending substantially less per pupil.

Summing Up

The chart below shows the changes in key measures by improvement group.

So what have we learned from this look at improvements in graduation rates over ten years? Among the 11 Gateway Cites starting in 2006 with graduation rates similar to Haverhill, the most improved districts:

  • Were able to improve graduation rates by 12 percentage points overall
  • Showed even greater improvements for low-income (20 percentage points) and Hispanic (22 percentage points) students than other students
  • Had notably greater increases in per pupil spending, exceeding the middle group by 11 percentage points over 10 years
  • Increased average teacher salaries only slightly more than others – by 2% over 10 years
  • Allowed student/teacher ratios to increase slightly less than the other groups

In contrast, Haverhill:

  • Improved graduation rates by less than 1%
  • Showed a 6 percentage point improvement in graduation rates for low-income students, but saw a 10 percentage point drop in graduation rates for Hispanic students
  • Started with per pupil spending 4% below the most improved group and slipped to 13% below this group in per pupil spending by 2016
  • Increased average teacher salaries substantially less than the most-improved, ending the period 9 percent below the most improved group and 11 percent below the other cities in our analysis
  • Reduced its student/teacher ratio slightly


What Haverhill has been doing has not been working to increase graduation rates as other Massachusetts cities have done. The results for the most-improved of the Gateway cities with 2006 graduation rates similar to Haverhill show that Haverhill has missed an opportunity for school improvement. That opportunity need not be missed going forward. We can learn from the experiences of others.

The results of the past decade suggest a possible path to improvement: focus less on student/teacher ratios and more on providing adequate resources (as reflected in per-pupil spending) and find ways to better meet the needs of low-income and Hispanic students. This may mean investing in more supporting resources to help our teachers better serve a changing student population. Other cities have shown how this can be done. Adapting their methods to Haverhill’s particular situation can be expected to produce meaningful improvements in graduation rates and greatly benefit our city for this and the next generation.

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.