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Addition by Subtraction: The Relation Between Dropout Rates and School-Level Academic Achievement


by Elizabeth Glennie, Kara Bonneau, Michelle vanDellen & Kenneth A. Dodge — 2012

Background/Context: Efforts to improve student achievement should increase graduation rates. However, work investigating the effects of student-level accountability has consistently demonstrated that increases in the standards for high school graduation are correlated with increases in dropout rates. The most favored explanation for this finding is that high-stakes testing policies that mandate grade repetition and high school exit exams may be the tipping point for students who are already struggling academically. These extra demands may, in fact, push students out of school.

Purpose/Objective/Focus: This article examines two hypotheses regarding the relation between school-level accountability and dropout rates. The first posits that improvements in school performance lead to improved success for everyone. If school-level accountability systems improve a school for all students, then the proportion of students performing at grade level increases, and the dropout rate decreases. The second hypothesis posits that schools facing pressure to improve their overall accountability score may pursue this increase at the cost of other student outcomes, including dropout rate.

Research Design: Our approach focuses on the dynamic relation between school-level academic achievement and dropout rates over time—that is, between one year’s achievement and the subsequent year’s dropout rate, and vice versa. This article employs longitudinal data of records on all students in North Carolina public schools over an 8-year period. Analyses employ fixed-effects models clustering schools and districts within years and controls each year for school size, percentage of students who were free/reduced-price lunch eligible, percentage of students who are ethnic minorities, and locale.

Findings/Results: This study finds partial evidence that improvements in school-level academic performance will lead to improvements (i.e., decreases) in school-level dropout rates. Schools with improved performance saw decreased dropout rates following these successes. However, we find more evidence of a negative side of the quest for improved academic performance. When dropout rates increase, the performance composites in subsequent years increase.

Conclusions/recommendations: Accountability systems need to remove any indirect benefit a school may receive from increasing its dropout rate. Schools should be held accountable for those who drop out of school. Given the personal and social costs of dropping out, accountability systems need to place more emphasis on dropout prevention. Such an emphasis could encompass increasing the dropout age and having the school’s performance composite include scores of zero on end-of-grade tests for those who leave school.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 8, 2012, p. 1-26
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16529, Date Accessed: 10/22/2014 5:36:33 AM

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About the Author
  • Elizabeth Glennie
    RTI International
    ELIZABETH GLENNIE is a senior education research analyst at RTI International. Much of her work focuses on high school reform and programs to enhance opportunities for postsecondary educational access. Recent publications: Edmunds, J., Bernstein, L., Glennie, E., Willse, J. T., Arshavsky, N., Unlu, F., et al. (2010). Preparing students for college: The implementation and impact of the Early College High School model. Peabody Journal of Education, 85, 348–364; and Clotfelter, C. C., Glennie, E. J., Ladd, H. F., & Vigdor, J. (2008). Would higher salaries keep teachers in high-poverty schools? Evidence from a policy intervention in North Carolina. Journal of Public Economics, 92, 1352–1370; and Stearns, M. E., & Glennie, E. (2006). When and why dropouts leave school. Youth and Society, 38(1), 29–57.
  • Kara Bonneau
    North Carolina Education Research Data Center
    KARA BONNEAU is the associate director for data management, North Carolina Education Research Data Center. Her research interests include education policy, race and ethnicity, social stratification, and program evaluation. Recent publication: Stearns, E., Buchmann, C., & Bonneau, K.,(2009). Interracial friendship networks in the transition from high school to college. Sociology of Education, 82, 173–195.
  • Michelle vanDellen
    Duke University
    MICHELLE VANDELLEN is a research scientist at Duke University. Her research interests focus on the area of self-regulation, specifically interpersonal relationships and self-control. Recent publications: vanDellen, M. R., Campbell, W. K., Hoyle, R. H., & Bradfield, E. K. (2011). Compensating, resisting, and breaking: A meta-analytical investigation of reactions to threat. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 51–74; and vanDellen, M. R., & Hoyle, R. H. (2010). Regulatory accessibility and social influences on state self-control. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 251–263.
  • Kenneth Dodge
    Duke University
    KENNETH A. DODGE is William McDougall Professor of Public Policy at Duke University. His research interests include the development and prevention of problem behaviors in children. Recent publications: Dodge, K. A., Malone, P. S., Lansford, J. E., Miller, S., Pettit, G. S., & Bates, J. E. (2009). A dynamic cascade model of the development of substance-use onset. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Serial No. 294; and Coleman, D. L., Bradley, K. W., & Dodge, K. A. (Eds.). (2010). Corporal punishment: A special symposium issue. Law and Contemporary Problems, 73.
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