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Improving High School Graduation Rates for All—Evidence Blast

November 14, 2018


Our Evidence Blast series provides evidence-based research, data, and resources to help practitioners and policymakers make important decisions about schools and students.

Schools, districts, and states in the Northwest are committed to increasing the number of students who graduate from high school ready for college and careers, but reaching this goal is a challenge. Four states in the region lag behind the national average in on-time graduation rates, with only Montana exceeding the national benchmark. In addition, distinct disparities in graduation rate by race/ethnicity and student group persist.

One way REL Northwest addresses this regional priority is to help spread promising practices by sharing success stories. Recent examples include describing how a commitment to equity has helped close the graduation gap for Latino students in one Oregon district and demonstrating districts' use of Montana's Early Warning System.

For this first issue of our Evidence Blast, we searched the literature for publicly available studies and research-based resources on improving graduation rates for all students, as well as several specific student groups: young men of color, English learner students, Alaska Native/American Indian students, and students with disabilities.

National Publications

Preventing Dropout in Secondary Schools (2017)
This What Works Clearinghouse practice guide is an excellent introduction to research on evidence-based strategies. It provides examples of and suggestions for implementing four recommendations to reduce dropout rates and improve high school graduation rates:

  • "Monitor the progress of all students, and proactively intervene when students show early signs of attendance, behavior, or academic problems."
  • "Provide intensive, individualized support to students who have fallen off track and face significant challenges to success."
  • "Engage students by offering curricula and programs that connect schoolwork with college and career success and that improve students' capacity to manage challenges in and out of school."
  • "For schools with many at-risk students, create small, personalized communities to facilitate monitoring and support."

Dropout Prevention and Trauma: Addressing a Wide Range of Stressors That Inhibit Student Success (2017) PDF File
In this report, the National Dropout Prevention Center examines how trauma can be an underlying issue that leads to misbehavior, academic struggles, poor attendance, and dropping out of school. The paper includes research, data, and resources related to families and students who have experienced or are experiencing trauma, whether chronic or short term.

High School Graduation and College Readiness Indicator Systems: What We Know, What We Need to Know (2018)
"In districts across the country, school practitioners rely on early warning indicator systems (EWI) to identify students in need of support to graduate high school and be prepared for college. … This paper by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research provides a brief overview of the current state of the use of indicators for improving students' educational attainment, considerations about which indicators to use when developing an indicator system, and some of the questions that have arisen as schools, districts, and states engage in these efforts."

A Peer-Led High School Transition Program Increases Graduation Rates Among Latino Males (2014)
"[This] study, published in the Journal of Educational Research, investigated the impact of a manualized high school transition program, the Peer Group Connection (PGC) program, on the graduation rate at a low-income, Mid-Atlantic high school. The program utilized twelfth grade student peer leaders to create a supportive environment for incoming ninth grade students. … Findings suggest that peers can be effective in delivering a school-based, social emotional learning intervention and that it is possible to intervene in the ninth grade to influence the probability of high school graduation."

A Practitioner's Guide to Implementing Early Warning Systems (2015)
"To stem the tide of students dropping out, many schools and districts are turning to early warning systems (EWS) that signal whether a student is at risk of not graduating from high school. While some research exists about establishing these systems, there is little information about the actual implementation strategies that are being used across the country. This REL Northwest report summarizes the experiences and recommendations of EWS users throughout the United States."

Promising Education Interventions to Improve the Achievement of Native American Students: An Annotated Bibliography (2015)
"This annotated bibliography of 33 articles from the West Comprehensive Center identifies promising programs, policies, practices, and processes—and supporting research—that may benefit educators in their efforts to close the [American Indian/Alaska Native] achievement gap."

Regional Publications

Alaskan Schools: What Matters to Students? Listening to the Voices of Engaged and Disengaged Alaska Native and Non-Native Students (2012)
"What makes a school a place where Alaskan students want to be and want to do well? Why do students stay in school or drop out? And what do Alaskan students believe that schools can do to help them succeed? Researchers [at American Institutes for Research] present the answers, provided directly by students in 2010 and 2011, to these questions."

Are Two Commonly Used Early Warning Indicators Accurate Predictors of Dropout for English Learner Students? Evidence from Six Districts in Washington State (2017)
"This study examined the graduation and dropout rates of current and former English learner students compared to those who had never been English learners in six school districts in the south King County area of Washington state. The REL Northwest study also looked at the accuracy of the early warning indicators used to predict dropping out—such as attendance, course failures, and suspensions—for different groups of English learner and non-English learner students."

Early Identification of High School Graduation Outcomes in Oregon Leadership Network Schools (2015)
"The purpose of this study by REL Northwest was to examine student characteristics related to completing high school within four years, with particular emphasis on graduation outcomes for male and English language learner students. Findings confirmed previous studies showing that attendance and grade point average (GPA) in grades 8 and 9 are significantly associated with graduating on time."

Factors Influencing High School Graduation (2015)
For this report, the Washington Student Achievement Council reviewed recent studies that identify who graduates from high school and who drops out, as well as the factors that characterize student success or failure. The report describes state and local efforts to address these challenges and improve graduation rates across Washington.


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