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What Do We Know About Assessing Need and Progress in Low Graduation Rate High Schools?

The first and absolutely essential step in improving low graduation rate high schools is to have a deep understanding of why they are not currently succeeding. This needs to be known both in the general sense of why we have low graduation rate high schools and in a deeply specific sense for the particular high school in need of improvement.

Step 1 – Avoid Common Mistakes

In the author’s experience when efforts to reform low graduation rate high schools fail, more often than not their failure is rooted is in poor understanding and diagnosis of the challenges at hand.  One of the biggest mistakes that can be made is to assume that the diagnosis is obvious and rush forward with a solution.

For example:

  • leadership is ineffective (bring in a new principal),
  • teachers are not trained or committed (replace some/all of the staff),
  • students are not prepared or motivated (increase extra help,)
  • parents and the community are not sufficiently involved (implement new program).

All of these maybe true but they are more often than not symptoms not the underlying cause of the low performance.

The other common diagnostic mistake is to assume that all low performing schools are similar and that as a result, something which appeared to work in one will or should work in all.

One of the things that slowed down early efforts at high school turnaround, for example, was the often implicit assumption that models which worked with elementary schools would be just as effective with high schools.

A deep understanding of the challenges faced in low graduation rate high schools, however, shows why this is not usually the case.

Step 2 – Understanding Why

Why Do We Have Low Graduation Rate High Schools?

Low graduation rate high schools are schools currently not able to meet the educational challenges they face. There is a miss-match between adult capacities and actions and student needs and motivations.

High schools are large and complex organizations, on average they educate about 1200 students with varying levels of prior preparation and current motivations and employ 100 adults with varied levels of skill, experience, and years working at the school. These students and adults are mixed and matched throughout the day, with multiple shifts, spread over a large physical plant.

Success requires extensive coordination and consistency all constrained by the inherent limitations of human bandwidth and communication and the typical social organization of high school in which teachers are organized by subject area departments and spend most of their day, isolated from other adults, teaching 125 to 150 students usually just for a year in duration.

This makes the typical high school challenging to run well. But most low graduation rate high schools are not typical high schools, most educate primarily, often exclusively students of color who live in poverty.

As a consequence, their students are often impeded by the impacts of poverty from attending school regularly, focusing in class, and completing their assignments. Yet these are the core student behaviors teachers and administrators depend on for instruction to succeed and to meet accountability metrics.

It is not unusual for a low graduation rate high school to have chronic absenteeism rates of 50% or more, to suspend more students than graduate, and have average GPA’s somewhere between a D+ and C-. Typically, they also have higher, sometimes much higher than average rates of students with learning differences and/or English Language learners and recent immigrants. This makes the work in high poverty high schools, consistently hard, constantly stressful, often unpredictable and filled with set-backs.

As a result, some of the adults make accommodations to the environment by lowering expectations (given their low levels of skills we do the best we can) or engaging in triage (we will teach the ones who come), or they exit it. These pull-back or leave actions under-mine relational trust among the adults in the school and further increase the challenges faced by those who stay and try to push through.

The result is overall adult capacity is diminished, as is the ability to work collectively and collaboratively in the very schools that require the highest levels of both.

Step 3 – Compare to the Most Common Types

The environmental drivers of low graduation rates, play out differently across high schools depending on their intensity and the responses of the adults in the school.  Consequently, the required reforms will vary as well.  Broadly speaking, based on the authors experience, low graduation rate high schools typically fall into one of three categories.

Locked Capacity

In these high schools sufficient adult capacity to meet the educational challenges faced largely exists but is not currently being fully or effectively applied.

These are often high schools where student populations have shifted rapidly or there is more of a mix in terms of the socio-economic status of the student population, and as a result it has not historically or in the eyes of some even currently viewed as a low performing high school. These are also often high schools that have maintained very traditional departmentalized school organizations.

As a result, these high schools, likely may not even be aware of their chronic absenteeism rate and may have enacted counter-productive discipline policies. They may also have fairly tracked opportunities to learn, with minority and low income students over-represented in the lower tracks.

These are most commonly the schools, that make considerable improvements with leadership changes, as the key factors are re-orientating the mission of the school to doing what is needed to enable all students to succeed, creating organizational structures to unlock and better apply existing adult capacity to achieve the mission, and stopping the use of counter-productive strategies.


In these high schools, the existing adult capacity even when it is better applied is not sufficient to meet the educational challenges faced by the school.

These are often schools, that have made some progress with reform initiatives aimed at increasing adult capacity-they may have 9th grade academies for example, or at least for a period of time when grant funds where available additional teacher training and coaching, they may be currently attempting to implement a restorative justice program as an alternative to suspensions.

As a result, that may well have seen improvements in attendance, behavior, the percent of students earning on-time grade promotion and even achievement and graduation rates. However, since they started from a low baseline, their graduation rate remains below 67% and many students are not graduating college-ready.

Here the challenge is twofold. First a careful analysis of which of their reform efforts are still functioning and effective, which were implemented insufficiently, and what is missing from a comprehensive approach. Second, an analysis of the scale and intensity of student need. Some of these schools may well have hundreds of students who are chronically absent, being suspended, and retained in grade (in good part because they are not handing in their assignments). Student need of this scale, overwhelms traditional whole school reform efforts which focus primarily on building adult capacity.

As a result, until mechanisms are added to address the scale and intensity of student need, traditional whole school reforms may lead to modest improvements but not succeed in making the school effective for all students.


Both locked capacity and over-matched high schools can become dysfunctional over time.

In locked capacity schools’ attitudes towards the students who are not succeeding can harden, and devolve into open frustration and even contempt-captured by the sentiment-that the school’s struggles are because the students have changed not the behaviors of the adults. Students then react to school climates and structures they perceive as indifferent at best, and often openly hostile by either fleeing-i.e. skipping more school or fighting-acting out even more.

In over-matched schools, frustration at hard work having only modest results, can lead to high levels of faculty and administrative turn-over, and the stopping of effective, if not sufficient reform efforts. The replacements are typically less experienced and feeling over-matched and as a result, may implement, often unknowingly, counter-productive strategies which ultimately make things worse. These typically involve strategies which attempt to place more responsibility on students for their own success e.g. making course failure automatic if students miss a certain number of days.

The continual staff churn also undermines the ability to have collective and collaborative actions and over a surprisingly short period, the school’s primary focus can become “putting the fires out” and getting through the day and the year with as few disruptions as possible. In this environment sustained teaching and learning stops.

These are the schools that in one form or another need a re-start.

Leadership changes, evidence based whole school reform efforts aimed at building adult capacity, and enhanced student supports in themselves will not be sufficient. They will all be needed, but may struggle to succeed unless that toxic teaching and learning environment that may have been ingrained over years is also addressed.

In some locales this has been effectively achieved by replacing the school with a number of new small schools. In others, a community informed and participatory re-design process has led to the school being re-designed and re-booted.

Step 4 – Understand What Success Looks Like

Just as it possible to paint a broad picture of why a high school has low graduation rates, it is also possible to show what it needs to have to succeed.

At the most fundamental level student needs must be met with an adult response that builds reliable, robust, and durable pathways through high school and onto to post-secondary schooling or training.

Student Success

To graduate high school college and career ready- students need to

  • Acquire a core body of knowledge and skills benchmarked to college and career readiness standards
  • Develop a set of learning and self-management skills  that enables them to complete the class  assignments and tests upon which course passing and credit accrual  depend and ultimately become a self-regulated learner
  • Have reference points that regularly show the quality and intensity of school work needed to succeed in post-secondary environments
  • Believe they can learn/do the work and have the motivation to do so
  • Attend school on a regular basis
  • If they live in high poverty environments students will also need help with practical problem solving to overcome the barriers poverty presents to attending and succeeding in school, to have positive developmental and supportive relationships with adults in the school, and be provided with opportunities which demonstrate their lives have hope and purpose-beyond pure survival.

Adult Success

To enable students who live in high poverty environments and attend low graduation rate high schools to graduate college and career ready the adults/teachers in the school need to:

  • Create a welcoming, supportive, and participatory school climate/culture for students, adults in the school, and parents, create mechanisms to build relational trust in all directions
  • Have deep content knowledge and mastery of the craft of teaching
  • Be able to teach effectively and customize pedagogies (e.g. universal design) in classes with mixed levels of prior preparation, motivation and learning challenges
  • Know how to keep improving their craft and their ability to support students (including students who live in poverty and have experience trauma) and have access to opportunities and supports to do so
  • Learn how to balance being perceived as demanding and caring in their expectations and action with students
  • Understand how living in poverty can cause students to act differently from middle class norms (ACE’s stress, trauma and shame) and develop the required culture and trauma informed competencies to skillfully respond
  • Know how to work effectively in collaborative teams-both vertical by subject and horizontal by shared students, and work collectively at grade and school level to create consistent environment for student in terms of academic and behavioral expectations
  • Know how to use formative and summative assessments to maximize student learning-rather than sort students by “accomplishment”
  • Use data both individually and collaboratively at teacher team, grade, and school level to drive continuous improvement
  • Work collaboratively to promote good attendance among all students every day, monitor and react quickly to chronic absenteeism, and at individual level serve as “Success Mentor” to chronically absent students or those trending towards it
  • Use and participate in early warning and intervention systems, recruit and integrate community and non-profit partners as needed to insure can response to the scale and intensity of student need and provide the right support at the right time to the right students

Be able to create discipline and credit recovery polices and strategies that enabled earned recovery as the primary response (e.g. restorative practices and second chance opportunities to demonstrate competency) rather than punishment or leniency.

5 Things that Show a School is On Track

Five Things that Show a Low Grad Rate High School is On Track to Success

Progress towards students graduating college and career ready in high poverty low graduation rate high schools can monitored through a set of metrics which capture both student and adult success factors.  Thus these metrics can be used to help determine the reform progress low graduation rate high schools are making

They are:

  • The ABC’s
    Students need to attend regularly, focus and behave in school, and do well in their courses to graduate college and career ready. These outcomes are shaped both by student and adult behaviors and can be monitored on a monthly basis.Thus, close tracking of a school’s chronic absenteeism rate, suspension and disciplinary infraction rate, and the GPA’s of its students (and in particular the number of course failures and then number of students earning a B or higher in core courses) in combination with more traditional measures like on-time earned grade promotion rates, standardized test scores and graduation rates can provide good insight into both student and school progress.
  • Quality of Coursework
    The driver of college readiness is to be able to apply what you have learned to the quality completion of challenging class assignments.Quality teaching and instruction design, effective adult collaboration and consistency across classrooms, as well as student motivation and the extent to which they have reference points to the amount and intensity of work required to succeed in post-secondary schooling or training and have received any additional cognitive or socio-emotional supports they need to achieve it-can all be measured through an audit of the quality of coursework a representative sample of students is doing in their classes.
  • Quality of Relationships
    Motivation, effort, commitment and perseverance are all shaped by inter-personal relations and trust. In high poverty environments positive adult-student, and adult-adult relationships are also a needed antidote to the stress impacts of poverty (which in high poverty schools impact students and the adults in the school).Existing survey and observational instruments exist which can be used to gauge the extent to which students, adults, and parents have the network of positive and supportive relationships they need.
  • Equity of Access to Learning Experiences and Success Supports
    To graduate college and career ready all students need access to courses of study linked to college and career readiness standards and state university admission requirements and the academic and social emotional supports they need to succeed in them, including organized experiences which develop artistic, scientific, leadership, and/or community service skills.Adults in the school need access to organizational structures and professional learning opportunities, which enable the enhancement of their skills. Audits of the course taking and extra-curricular participation rates of students from different sub-groups, along with surveys of teachers can be used to measure this outcome.
  • Processes and structures in place to promote and enable continuous improvement
    The school needs to be organized so students and adults, have the time, organizational structures, access to external peer networks and the supports needed to engage in continuous improvement of the school. For this to occur, energy and focus of the adults and students in the school cannot be consumed by an environment shaped by continual stress and scarcity.Site visits and teacher and administrator interviews can be used to gauge the extent to which these processes and structures exist and are used.