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High School Graduation and Dropout Rates

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Policy Considerations for Dropout Rates

This report provides policy makers with information to address dropout rates among ethnic groups, predict ramifications, and identify approaches for increasing graduation rates by enacting fair and equitable solutions.

Compare and Contrast: Equity vs Equality

Equity in education aims at fairness in the distribution of educational resources. “Equity is fairness; it is distribution based on need. Equality is distribution of the same for all” (Erakovich).

Educational policies need to promote equity instead of equality. “School communities should be willing to engage in school reforms that promote equity” (Welner & Burris). Researchers argue that equity can result in educational excellence if the curriculum is not watered-down.

“Equity involves both opportunity as well as results” (Bensiman, Hao, & Bustillos). While equality addresses access and educational opportunity, equity is concerned about the graduation and the dropout rates.

Analyzing Graduation and Dropout Rates

This study identifies the social costs of dropout rates, factors influencing graduation rates, and proposes the need for additional research.

Graduation rates are an outcome measure of education while dropout rates can be recognized as a process measure of education. Process measures are sensitive to differences in the quality of education. Outcome measures reflect many aspects of education, including those difficult to measure. Analyzing the graduation rate while considering the dropout rate is beneficial in measuring equity in education policy.

Process and Outcome Measures

Graduation RateDropout Rate

Outcome measure

Process measure

Direct measure of quality

Measures equity

Equitable Policies

“The inadequate and inequitable opportunities offered to poor and minority youth today are perhaps the greatest challenge facing America’s schools and social institutions” (Levin). Policies that focus on an equitable distribution of educational resources may help address the disparity in graduation rates for ethnicities including Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans. Providing resources to those most in need may help to boost academic achievement.

Case Study: Iowa’s High Educational Standards

Iowa is recognized as one of the nation’s leaders in education. The Iowa Tests of Basic skills are administered nation-wide. Further, “Iowa students who take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) perform well with the highest composite scores in the nation for reading, math and writing.” (Iowa Department of Education). What has contributed to Iowa’s success?


Iowa’s Education Policy

The State of Iowa Education policy can be found in Chapter 256.37 of the Iowa Code:

It is the policy of the state of Iowa to provide an education system that prepares the children of this state to meet and exceed the technological, informational, and communications demands of our society… the current education system must be transformed to deliver the enriched educational program that the adults of the future will need to have to compete in tomorrow's world.

Iowa’s education policy would benefit by adapting elements from successful models implemented in other states that lower dropout rates, boost graduation rates and improve academic achievement.

Grading Scale Formats

Iowa has been pressured to move from the traditional A-F grading scale to a Standards Based Reporting (SBR) system. ”The Waukee school district moved to this format 10 years ago…standards based education was embraced in most state and federal education policy with the goal of raising standards. It changed the measurement of success to academic achievement, rather than the completion of 12 years of education“ (Wilkerson).

Academic achievement is a measurement of success in Iowa. However, it is necessary to address the dropout rates to understand the social costs especially among poor and minority students.

Standardizing and Measuring Dropout Rate

In Iowa, the dropout rate is standardized to count students who may graduate in 5 years. It is not equivalent to subtracting the graduation rate from 100 percent because this method would count students who may not graduate in four years but remain in school and may graduate in five years. It would incorrectly report these students as dropouts.

These two terms cannot be used interchangeably. However, both can be measured when analyzing policies that attempt to boost academic achievement with a goal of educational equity.

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Analysis of Graduation Rates

Levin found that there is a relationship between high school graduation and reduction in criminal activity, as well as the likelihood of avoiding the need for public assistance. There is also a relationship between high school graduation and improved health, active civic participation and job opportunities.

A gap exists in the State of Iowa graduation rates. A particular disparity exists between Whites and students of Black, Hispanic and Native American origin.

Graduating Class of Southeast Polk High School


Disparity in the Educational System

According to Iowa Code, “The education system must strive to reach the following goals: 1. All children in Iowa must start school ready to learn. 2. Iowa’s high school graduation rate must increase to at least ninety percent….”

Although data shows that the graduation rate has increased to 88.8%, Iowa’s goal is to increase it to at least 90% (emphasis mine). More importantly, the data shows that the graduation rate for Blacks is 72.0%, Hispanics is 76.5%, Native Americans 73.3% and Asian 89.7%. For Whites, the rate is 90.4%.

Empirical Analysis of Graduation Rates

Empirical analysis can be conducted to see if graduation rates among White students are different for ethnicities. A z-score or confidence interval can be conducted. A statistically significant difference between Whites and ethnicities or between ethnicities and the policy goal suggests a need for further research.

If not addressed, our nation is at risk for moral, economic, civic, and social threats. “Inadequately educated children are more likely to be arrested, become pregnant, use drugs, experience violence and require public assistance” (Levin). Social costs include $58 billion in health related losses, $1.4 billion related to crime, and $50 billion lost in federal and state income taxes.

Attendance Impact and Other Policy Considerations

MacIver & Groginsky found that, “Prior attendance levels and academic readiness of the entering 9th-grade class largely determine high school graduation rates.”

The dropout rate significantly decreased in the state of Colorado. They contend that their approach should be used as a model for other states. Levin found that, “Young white children are more school-ready than their Black peers” and suggest that policies should consider a child’s exposure to reading, books, computers and supervised play before he or she starts school.

Quasi-Experimental Study of Graduation Rates

Porowski & Passa conducted a quasi-experimental study on the effects of communities in schools on high school dropout and graduation rates. They found that, “initiatives that aim to prevent student dropout by encouraging collaboration between schools and their surrounding communities can help keep students engaged in school and on track to graduation.”

Howell noted that, “A consensus has emerged that students attending private schools enjoy significantly higher graduation rates.” Researchers also studied the effects of school vouchers on student tests scores in New York, New York, Dayton, Ohio, and Washington, DC and found that after 2 years, “African Americans who switched from public to private school gained, relative to their public-school peers, an average of 6.3 National Percentile Ranking on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.“

Impact of Reading Skills

Boosting reading skills is essential.. Cormack suggests, “In the case of reading policy, this should include exemplary documentation of classroom practices and, especially, consideration of the ways in which particular practices can be related to the socio-historical contexts in which they were placed, which are recognizable to both practitioners and researchers.” Incorporating reading programs into the policy is important both in the formulation and implementation stages.

Evaluation and Analysis of Education Policy

Policymakers have used cost-benefit types of analysis to make decisions regarding state education policy. They include, (1) average expenditure studies, (2) resource cost studies, and (3) cost function studies (Taylor, Baker & Vedlitz). Yet the conclusions reached by these studies are varied and at times inconclusive. Researchers rationalize that there is not a consensus of which model to use for measuring the costs of adequate education and therefore, “policy response could be to conduct several studies with different methods…. Policymakers and the courts should evaluate educational adequacy from a variety of perspectives…” (Taylor, Baker & Vedlitz). A cost-benefit approach alone will not address the graduation rate disparity found among ethnicities.

6 Key Areas of Education Policies

Iowa and other states should formulate policies that (1) emphasize reading, (2) focus on academic readiness, (3) enhance the use of technology, (4) promotes supervised play, (5) encourages vouchers, and (6) incorporates collaboration among key stakeholders. With Levin, we can conclude, “There is no single policy focus likely, by itself, to make the nation equitable” (Levin).

Education Policies Should be More Equitable

Policies should aim to make our educational system more equitable by investigating and addressing multi-faceted influences that affect graduation and dropout rates and academic achievement. They should recognize the causal relationships between a child’s health and better school attendance. Policies should also recognize the effects of external influences so as not to focus on schools alone. “Parents who earn more may accumulate savings which can be used to send children to college and inspire them to do so” (Levin). Adequate education influences earnings and higher earnings influence adequate education “An up-front investment in education, even one that costs billions of dollars, can prevent much higher expenditures later on” (Levin). Investments should be made to address the graduation rate disparity among ethnicities.


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Iowa Department of Education. Iowa Code Chapter 256. (2011). Retrieved from:

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Porowski, A. & Passa, A. (2011). The effect of communities in schools on high school dropout and graduation rates: Results from a multiyear, school-level quasi-experimental study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), 16(1), 24-37.

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Taylor, L. L., Baker, B.D., & Vedlitz, A. (2005). Measuring educational adequacy in public schools. Bush School of Government and Public Service.BushSchool Working Paper #580.

Welner, K. G., & Burris, C. C. (2005). Alternative approaches to the politics of detracking. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 90–99.

Wilkerson, D. (2011). Time to stop hoping and start acting.

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