News Michal Kurlaender Paul E. Heckman

Focus Should Be on Attainment, Not Scores

Opinion: November 2012 Report on High School Graduation Rates

Federal and state leaders need to focus more on policies that improve educational attainment and college and career success and less on test scores

In November, the U.S. Department of Education released new high school graduation rates for each state, using what the department called a “common, rigorous measure.” The picture is bleak for California, which ranks 32 among other states in high school completion. More troubling are the persistent disparities between racial/ethnic groups; white graduation rate is 85 percent, whereas Latino and African American graduation rates are 70 percent and 63 percent respectively.

Despite our ability to measure high school dropout rates more precisely, and strong research about what leads to high school departure, high school completion rates have not improved.  The consequences of high drop-out rates for individuals and for society are great. Educational attainment is associated with a host of economic and social benefits, including higher incomes, better health practices, higher civic engagement, lower incarceration and reduced welfare dependency.

Our current education accountability system is chiefly concerned with improving academic achievement.  Over 10 years after the No Child Left Behind Act, we know a lot about what predicts academic success on standardized test scores, and far less about how to prepare students for the world of work (and college) that they will be facing.  How do we address the conditions that result in students’ premature departure from high school? 

First, policymakers need to be attentive to the economic and social forces that many young people find themselves in. Recent statistics indicate a poverty rate of 23.5 percent for California under the federal government’s new “supplemental poverty measure,” (SPM) (the highest in the nation).  Economic pressures faced by many California families may result in lack of attention and/or withdrawal from school.

Second, our schools must offer tighter links between education and career opportunities. Over the last half-century we have witnessed persistent and widening gaps in earnings on the basis of educational attainment; but dropout rates do not improve in many of our struggling schools. California faces a critical skills gap that demands more from our state’s high schools, as well as our colleges and universities, to prepare young people for a rapidly changing labor market. We hold the promise of Common Core State Standards to do much of that, but schools will continue to struggle with making these standards relevant and fruitful for students at greatest risk of dropping out.

Third, we must alter the public discourse to be about increasing student engagement and educational attainment — not just test scores. Research from a variety of disciplines suggests the critical importance of non-cognitive skills for individual attainment — skills that must also be nurtured in schools. Although some students may possess a host of social and cultural resources, which allow them to succeed in school without interest and engagement, other students have greater difficulty to effectively “do school” absent those resources.  These are disproportionally economically poor students, English learners, and students who may feel so far behind that they find a high school diploma beyond their reach.

Today, education remains the main vehicle out of poverty, and a key determinant of labor market outcomes.  Our current education accountability system should focus less on improving academic achievement through standardized test scores and more on policies that can increase educational attainment and college and career success.

Paul Heckman and Michal Kurlaender
University of California Davis
School of Education and Center for Poverty Research

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