University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Examining Arkansas’ Graduation Rates

In The View from the OEP on January 22, 2020 at 11:06 am


Take a minute to think about what drives graduation rates for a high school.

  • Is it student characteristics, such as their academic achievement or their socio-economic status?
  • Is it school characteristics, like how large it is or the community in which it is located?
  • Is it some mixture of both student and school characteristics?
  • Which are related to higher graduation rates and which are related to lower graduation rates?

Here at the OEP, we have taken a deep dive into what student and school characteristics  account for variation in high school graduation rates and are pleased to release our report today! This report examines trends in high school graduation rates for the state of Arkansas across the five-year period of 2013-14 through 2017-18. We consider the relationship between graduation rate and variables of interest including school-level indicators of geographic region, achievement in literacy and math, proportion of racial minority and economically disadvantaged students, graduating class size, and the configuration of the school’s grade levels. Graduation rates are evaluated at the school level for students overall and for students who face economic disadvantages.

Here’s the short summary of what we found:

  • Larger graduating classes are associated with lower graduation rates. Graduating class size is the only consistently significant predictor of high school graduation rates across all five years examined. Larger graduating class size is highly significantly associated with lower graduation rates for students overall as well as for students who face economic disadvantages. See below for why we selected this variable.
  • High schools that begin in 10th or 11th grade are associated with higher overall graduation rates. School grade configuration is a significant predictor of graduation rate in 70% of our multivariate analyses. High schools that begin in 10th or 11th grade are associated with higher overall graduation rates, relative to being in a school with only grades 9-12. Although not consistently statistically significant like class size, positive coefficients across all years for both overall and economically disadvantaged students indicate that high schools that begin in 10th or 11th grade are either positively or neutrally related to graduation rates. See below for why we selected this variable.
  • Demographic characteristics of students enrolled in the school are not consistently significantly related to graduation rates when controlling for all variables in our model. The percentage of students participating in the free/reduced lunch program are significantly negatively related to overall graduation rates in only the most recent three years studied, while the percentage of students of minority status is not significantly related to student graduation rate in any of the years examined.
  • Student achievement indicators are not consistently significantly related to graduation rates when controlling for all variables in our model. The relationship between 8th grade (pre-high school) literacy achievement and graduation rates is significant in the first three years studied, but 8th grade math achievement is significantly related to graduation rates only in 2014-15.

High school graduation rates are important for both students and schools.  Graduating from high school opens a door to increased career opportunities and greater lifetime earnings for students. Arkansas education leaders realize that graduating high school is an important milestone for students, so the state includes graduation rate as 15% of a high school’s ESSA accountability score. Developing a better understanding of the relationships between high school graduation rates and student and/or school characteristics may help us think differently about what really drives high school graduation rates.

Although school leaders cannot easily reduce the size of the graduating class or the number of grades enrolled in a high school building, reflection on how they could re-create the benefit of smaller class size experiences through policies like creating smaller pseudo-cohorts of graduates (through ‘houses’, ‘tribes’, ‘teams’, or ‘families’, for example) might lead to increased graduation rates for their students.

This research can help school leaders, policy makers and education stakeholders to examine ways to further increase school graduation rates. The only variable that is consistently associated with graduation rate change is the number of students in the graduating class, although indications of a positive relationship between high schools serving only grades 10-12 or 11-12 and higher graduation rates appear worthy of further study.

Why just study Arkansas?

State-level is the best way to examine graduation rates. Although all states now calculate high school graduation rates the same way (using the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate), there can be differences between states in the requirements for graduation.  In addition, school funding can vary across states as well as the profile of a ‘typical’ high school.

Why consider Graduating Class Size?

Earlier research by the Office for Education Policy (2014) found that larger high schools and schools serving more economically-disadvantaged students had lower graduation rates. There has been quite a bit of research into the benefits of smaller schools, but the definition is not uniform, generally using enrollment between 400 and 1200 students as the indicator of “small”. Benefits of small schools are generally ascribed to the fact that students are more likely to be known by school staff and other students, reducing the chances for them to be overlooked when displaying behaviors that might lead to academic difficulties and dropping out.

During the 2017-18 school year in Arkansas, however, 78% of high schools would be considered “small” as they enrolled fewer than 600 students. Further, half of these “small” high schools could be termed “very small” as they enrolled fewer than 300 students.

When considering the root cause of possible benefits of school enrollment, we felt it was critical to consider the grade configuration of high schools in Arkansas.  About half (129) of the state’s high schools begin at a grade lower than 9th grade, with a 7th -12th grade configuration accounting for 85% of this group. The second largest grade configuration group contains the 109 high schools that enroll a traditional 9th -12th grade population. High schools that begin after 9th grade create the smallest grade configuration group, with only 37 schools.

Due to the variation in grades served by these high schools, we elect to use the size of the graduating class as our indicator of school size. High schools that begin prior to 9th grade have fewer students enrolled in the graduating class when compared to the other grade configurations. On average, there were 47 students in the graduating classes of the schools that begin prior to 9th grade, compared to 163 in the 9-12 schools and 238 in the included schools that begin after 9th grade.

Why consider Grade Configuration?

Arkansas has a variety of grade configurations serving high school students.  We felt that there might be a relationship between school grade configuration and high school graduation, particularly since the grade configurations are generally associated with graduating class size.  We also consider the placement of 9th grade, as it is the first year that a student’s academic performance counts toward graduation requirements. We suspect that placement of the 9th grade might make a difference in a student’s likelihood of graduating as attending 9th grade in a familiar school might reduce the stress load on students. In addition, transitioning to a new school for 9th grade might cause a disruption in the learning experience, while transitioning to a new school after 9th grade might result in organizational issues with credit tracking that could lead to students failing to meet graduation requirements.

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