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Learning Curve

Using data to head off high school dropouts

Adriene Hill Nov 12, 2014
Learning Curve

Using data to head off high school dropouts

Adriene Hill Nov 12, 2014

Principal Kelley Birch’s office at Willis Jepson Middle School in Vacaville, California, has the usual stuff: elaborate scheduling calendars, photos and a neat stack of papers. 

What you won’t see, unless you walk around to Birch’s desk, is a whiteboard with handwritten names of the 56 students at Willis Jepson who have been struggling – the 7th and 8th graders who might not graduate high school a few years down the road.

Next to each name on the list trouble spots are noted, things like poor grades, poor attendance or serious behavior issues. The list also keeps track of the way the school has tried to help. The more marks next to a student’s name, the more interventions the teachers and counselors have attempted. 

“When I see that board,” says Birch, “I have an urgency that these kids need something now.” 

In the past, Birch says, getting a full view of which kids were in trouble took time.

“We would wait for the teacher. And the teacher would go to the counselor and say, ‘I have this student and they aren’t doing well,” Birch says. “And the counselor would go look and say, ‘Yeah, they aren’t doing well.’ But by then, it’s a quarter into the school year, a semester into the school year.” 

Birch now uses what’s known as an Early Warning System. Her team gathers and processes a steady stream of student data – such as GPA, attendance, demerits, and test scores – to peer into the future and spot the 7th and 8th graders most at risk of dropping out of high school.


An example of an Early Warning System.

“It’s about using data that are available to predict which students are at risk, identify them, and then provide supports and interventions so they can get back on track,” says Susan Bowles Therriault, principal researcher for the education program at American Institutes for Research. 

The national graduation rate has been climbing steadily. Today, about 80 percent of public high school seniors will graduate. A decade ago, that number was closer to 70 percent. Educators, parents, and politicians all want to see that number continue to increase.

Early Warning Systems are one way schools are trying to make that happen. Therriault says the proliferation of individual-level student data has made these systems possible, even common.

“There are probably schools and districts in every state across the nation that are using Early Warning Systems in some format,” she says. 

Research shows that the two most important factors when trying to predict whether a student will graduate from high school on-time are academic performance and attendance. But different schools, districts and states have their own models. They might include their own variables, or they start looking for signs that a child is at risk at different points in their education. And they flag them in different ways.

In Wisconsin, every 6th grader in the state is given a score between 0 and 100 that represents the child’s expected chances of finishing high school on time. Students under 78.5 are flagged as “high risk,” and their names are highlighted in red in the state’s student database.

“It’s early, and that’s the real advantage of it,” says Jared Knowles, a research analyst at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which calculates the scores.

Knowles says predicting the path of a 6th grader gives teachers a long lead time to change that path. Plus, he says, it can be cheaper to intervene early, before problems multiply.  

But Knowles acknowledges there are risks to using data to mark students as potential dropouts. “We do a lot of work to communicate about the limits of the prediction,” Knowles says, to show “that it’s not destiny.”

Educators wouldn’t want a teacher to give up on a student with a score of, say, 20 in order to help those with 80s. They don’t want a student to find out she’s got a red flag next to her name – and give up on herself.

The data, says Knowles, is just a snapshot of how a child is doing. It’s a symptom of trouble, but it’s not a diagnosis, and it’s not a cure.

“The school has to do that hard work to re-engage them back into the education system,” Knowles says.

That is the work that will actually change an outcome for a struggling student, not data or data systems, experts say.

Back at Principal Birch’s middle school in Vacaville, these school interventions take many forms, including special-ed evaluations, behavioral counseling, mentoring, and intervention classes in a specific subject area.

In the English intervention class, about a dozen students are going over the basics of reading comprehension. In the math intervention class, students are struggling to calculate discounts and tips.

These classes take resources, and Willis Jepson Middle School didn’t have extra money, so Birch came up with an elaborate bell schedule to squeeze them into the day. She also made some classes a little bigger, to free up teachers to run these interventions.

Birch says all the extra work like data crunching and schedule crunching is worth it to get students back on track.

And, hopefully, erase their names from that list in her office.

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