Allison Yin for EdSource

Russell Rumberger, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, directs the California Dropout Research Project

Although UC Santa Barbara Professor Emeritus Russell Rumberger has been researching high school dropouts for about 35 years, he’s still got unanswered questions. Foremost among them: What’s the value of a high school diploma these days?

He’s on a mission to tread where no researcher has gone before – digging deeply into the actual courses that students take to earn their diplomas in a quest to find out whether students are barely squeaking by or are engaged in robust, meaningful learning experiences that prepare them for college. 

Through his California Dropout Research Project, Rumberger has become nationally known as an expert in dropouts and graduation rates. He has written numerous research papers and essays on the subject, along with the book: “Dropping Out: Why Students Drop Out of High School and What Can Be Done About It.”

He participated in a panel discussion on serving California’s vulnerable children at EdSource’s symposium earlier this month and later discussed his research and plans for the future in an EdSource interview, excerpted below.

Q. During the symposium, you said, “the state has done a remarkable job overall” in raising graduation rates by about 8.5 percentage points over the last seven years to a high of about 83.2 percent. But, you called this “good news and bad news.” Why?

We don’t know what’s behind the increase – whether its legitimate or not. One of the concerns people have raised is credit recovery and online learning strategies. There are examples, kind of anecdotal evidence, of that that may not be legit.

There was an exposé in San Diego about students doing an online course where they weren’t supervised and could look up answers. But even if they’re doing the online course legitimately, it tends to compress the learning time associated with that subject. We don’t know what that means in terms of the quality of the education.

We need to know a little bit more about what’s behind the diplomas. We know if you don’t get high enough grades in high school, you’re not going to fare very well, so even meeting the CSU standard of a 2.0 GPA (Grade Point Average) may not be sufficient.

A diploma is a blunt instrument. It doesn’t reveal what’s behind it. You have to meet the minimal requirements. I want to know: ‘Are they meeting minimum requirements or is their education meaningful?’ – Russell Rumberger

Q. You said grades are better predictors of college success than test scores. Why?

A. Grades are an overall good predictor because they really reflect ability and effort. Grades capture students’ ability to know the subject, but also show students’ willingness to work hard and turn in assignments and show up to class. Those kinds of traits we talk about being good for college and careers are traits you need to get good grades.

Tests are limited because they only capture ability. Even if students are motivated to do well, they might not know that much stuff. But, they might be able to work hard. Tests alone are not a good indicator because they only measure half of the equation – the ability side and not the effort side.

Q. You have noted that recent graduation rate increases were especially impressive among previously lower-performing groups such as Hispanics. What do you attribute this to?

A. We don’t know, but maybe more of the Hispanic kids are using more of these other means of getting credits (such as online credit recovery).

But I also think there’s some real honest effort going on. I point to Fresno (Unified). They started a graduation task force about four or five years. They put some concerted efforts into their schools to not just improve graduation rates, but also improve student outcomes. That’s a very high-percentage Latino district. To the extent that districts like that put forth some real efforts – that could also account for some increases. Fresno implemented some real improvements in teacher training and curriculum and I think it’s paid off.

Hispanics and other disadvantaged groups were further behind, so had more room for improvement.

Students are earning more credits and diplomas, but it’s not clear whether there’s real learning associated with that increase going on.

Q. You said 50,000 students a year are still dropping out. What can be done to prevent this?

A. A lot of kids and their families live in very dire circumstances, with food insecurity and health issues that affect their ability to learn. We haven’t improved those conditions. Even if schools are working their butts off, most people would agree, you’re never going to solve any major problem, like graduation rates, without attempts to help kids and families improve.

To be honest, we’ll never get to a 100 percent graduation rate, even though the L.A. superintendent made some claims that, “this is our goal.” If we guaranteed every kid would not live in poverty, I bet we could do it. Until we solve poverty, we’ll never solve high school graduation rates.

We know kids spend the majority of their lives outside of school, so what happens outside of school is a very important factor in how they do in school. Until we provide the experiences outside of school, we can’t expect schools to mitigate all those other things. There’s a lot of effort being made there, but it’s still not going to happen without real improvement in family circumstances and community resources and things like that.

Q. What are your future research plans?

A. I’ve been getting data from the state on course enrollment statewide,  so I’m going to launch a big study of this soon, but I need more money. I’m going to look at grades and courses.

The data are becoming more readily available to investigate what kids are taking. The districts do collect and report course by course, credits and grades they earn. We have that data statewide, but it’s never been analyzed before.

And the state doesn’t report this data in aggregate for the public. They do with discipline and enrollment, but they don’t report course-taking patterns. That’s what you want to look at – that’s what colleges look at – A-G courses and electives.

The other thing that is predictive of college success is kids’ taking Advanced Placement and dual enrollment classes. So, I’m going to work on that too. They don’t have to take any of those classes to graduate, but if they want to be prepared for college, that helps, because not only do they get credit, but exposure to a college environment. So, dual enrollment is one of the avenues we can use to bolster kids’ credentials.

A diploma is a blunt instrument. It doesn’t reveal what’s behind it. You have to meet the minimal requirements. I want to know: ‘Are they meeting minimum requirements or is their education meaningful?’ Minimum, I would argue is a D or maybe a C, as opposed to a B or an A. There’s research that suggests a 2.5 GPA is a dividing line between being prepared and not being prepared. If we look at how many are earning B’s and A’s versus C’s and D’s, it will show us how prepared they are.

Q.  You have advocated for more flexibility in reporting high school graduation rates. Why?

A. Colleges and universities do that – report four, five and six-year rates. If you look at the data, even in the United States, 50 percent or less of college students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years because of changing majors, etc. I’ve always said, ‘Why should colleges do that and high schools not?’ The state has actually reported these five and six-year rates, they just don’t advertise them.

My claim is: If a student started high school at grade level, he or she should be able to graduate in four years and that’s an appropriate indicator. But if a kid is starting high school two or three grade levels behind or not proficient in English, it’s understandable it’s going to take longer to finish, so why penalize the school for hanging onto kids and being successful in five years? We should applaud it and not ignore it.

We should be encouraging high school completion no matter how long it takes. If a kid’s behind and it takes five years, that should count equal to a kid who’s not behind graduating in four years.

Q. What have you learned from your research in Chicago regarding 9th-graders?

A. They were the first to come up with this idea that 9th grade is this pivotal year for predicting success in high school. They created an indicator based on credits and course failures. It really demonstrated differences between successful and unsuccessful students. But I’m not sure that metric would work in our state. I use them as an example of a place that’s done it – that’s identifying these kids who are at risk early on.

I think there are also other ways, such as creating an 8th-grade performance measure to predict risk before they start failing 9th grade. If we can find some early indicators of risk, we can use those indicators to identify the kids that need more help and give them more help.

One of the big things we’ve known for years is, there’s a really big group of kids who don’t earn enough credits in 9th grade. It’s a group of kids who are very likely to not graduate.

We don’t want to necessarily wait for them to fail. You could look at who’s failing partway through 9th grade or at attendance – and you can flag them right away. If there are unexcused absences, find out what’s going on. It may be something at home.

We have examples of districts that use data to identify kids at risk and use it as a basis for intervention.

Q. What’s your opinion of the state’s decision to eliminate the California High School Exit Exam or CAHSEE?

A. I was never a fan of it because I’m not a fan of tests as a good indicator anyway. The argument is: Now we have the Smarter Balanced assessments, so why do we need another test? It’s a test burden.

It also created a course burden for kids that didn’t pass. A lot of kids spent a lot of time in CAHSEE prep classes. And that means they were not earning credits in science and math and even fun stuff like art that could keep them more engaged in school. That’s another reason I was not a big fan.

Q. Please describe the California Research Project.

A. It’s focused on the issue of high school dropouts in the last 10 years, looking at: When do kids drop out? Are there gender differences or racial gaps, and have they changed? We look at issues such as English learners and dropouts, and dropouts and health.

On our website, we have interactive graphs. You can chart the graduation rate for every district and every subgroup in the state. You can compare two or three districts with similar demographics. It’s a really useful tool for people to query the data.

Q. What sparked your interest in dropouts?

A. During my career, I realized the most vulnerable and disadvantaged population in our country and many countries are those who are the least educated. I did my doctoral thesis on overeducation – kids whose education exceeds the needs of their jobs. It focused on kids, but also adults, that graduate and are under-employed.

That still exists, but it’s just not to me as motivating as the group that never gets out of high school. College-educated kids, kids who graduate, are privileged. But it’s the kids who don’t graduate high school who are the most disadvantaged.

It’s amazing. Their life expectancy is nine years less than graduates, their earnings are roughly half-a-million less over their lifetimes, and they are five or six times more likely to be incarcerated. In most indicators of wellbeing, including poverty, the people at the bottom are the ones who are high school dropouts. So, it just motivated me to say: ‘That’s the group I want to study.’

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