Friday, April 15, 2011

8th Grade Literacy & Poverty Predict HS Grad Rates

Image by monado
Thanks to Rachel Norton, San Francisco School Board member, for her recent blog post: “Who is likely to finish HS? You can tell in 8th grade,” and Kathryn Baron, from the Topics in Education blog, for her recent post: Poverty + poor reading = dropout.

According to a recent study, which examined nearly 2.6 million student records from urban districts across the country, two factors determine whether 8th graders will go on to graduate from high school: having a GPA over 2.0 and an attendance rate over 87.5%. Impressively, 89% of students who had both and who passed all their academic core courses (math, English, social studies or science) graduated in four years.  However, simply passing all core classes was insufficient. 55% of students who had either poor attendance or low GPAs failed to graduate from high school in 4 years, even if they passed their core classes, while only 24% of students graduated on time if they possessed both risk factors.

Unfortunately, Norton did not provide the title or authors of the study, but there are numerous other studies that have replicated these results. For example, Allenworth and Easton1 found a strong correlation between GPA and graduation. Students with a 1.5 GPA had a 62% chance of graduating on time. Those with a 2.0 GPA had a 74% chance of graduating and those with a 2.5 GPA had an 86% chance. They also found a strong correlation between attendance and graduation rates, with only 64% of students graduating high school on time if they missed five to nine days during the ninth grade. The number went up to 87% if they missed less than five days. A study by Martha A. MacIver2 found that 80% of students graduated on time if they were in class at least 95% of the time during the 9th grade, whereas less than 20% of students graduated on time if their attendance was below 70%. (Click here to view the policy brief) There was also a study of Baltimore school children3 in which high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8. In a prior study4 the same authors found that low test scores and report card grades in first grade were a reliable predictor of later high school success.

This is probably not news to most teachers, as we have all experienced students who failed due to poor attendance. Many of us routinely have students who are absent 20-30% of the time (or more). While it is tempting to blame the schools for this problem, since they could always implement tougher attendance rules and consequences for unexcused absences, it would not solve the problem. There are a host of societal and familial problems that contribute to both absenteeism and low GPAs. For example, low income students are much more likely to be absent due to illnesses that go untreated and worsen due to lack of health insurance. They are also more likely to miss school in order to help with familial responsibilities like caring for a sibling or sick relative. According to the 2001 study by Alexander, et. al.3, students of lower socioeconomic status were four times more likely to drop out of high school than their wealthier counterparts.

It is true that high school graduation can be fairly accurately predicted by absences and GPA in 8th grade (or even 1st grade, according to Alexander, et. al. 20003). However, these factors are not necessarily the cause of high school failure. Rather, low graduation rates and poor attendance could both be symptoms of a larger problem: poverty. Certainly a few Ds and Fs early in one’s academic career could set a student so far back that it is difficult or impossible to catch up and graduate on time. Likewise, one bad health year (e.g., injury, whooping cough, pneumonia) could cause a student to get so far behind in all classes that the entire year must be repeated. However, kids who are absent a lot in 9th grade are generally absent a lot in all grades. Richard Rothstein says that poor children have 40% more absences than middle class kids. Similarly, students often have poor report cards throughout their academic careers for numerous reasons like low self-efficacy, difficulty focusing for extended periods of time, learning disabilities, or stress and anxiety at home.

Kathryn Baron’s post, like Norton’s, focuses on predictors of high school graduation rates. Her piece looks at a new longitudinal study that shows a direct link between third grade reading and high school graduation. Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation, which followed almost 4,000 students born between 1979 and 1989, found that third-graders who are poor readers are four times more likely to drop out of high school as those who are proficient readers.

Again, there is nothing surprising here. Poor literacy not only makes it difficult for students to comprehend test questions, homework assignments and textbooks, it can lower their self-efficacy and make school so frustrating that they stop trying. The more interesting part of the study was the observation that poverty could override the future benefits of reading proficiency. Students who were good readers, but who had lived at least one year in poverty, were just as likely to drop out as children who were poor readers but who had never experienced poverty.

While affluence can counter some of the effects low literacy, the majority of poor readers are also economically disadvantaged. Baron says that 83% of 4th graders receiving free or reduced lunch are also reading below grade level, while 70% of high school dropouts are economically disadvantaged.

There are numerous interventions that can help some low income kids succeed in school. For instance, encouraging low income parents to read to their babies and to use more complex language at home can help counter the vocabulary and pre-literacy gap that exists by the time children are three (see Hart and Risley and David Burkam and Valerie Lee). Some children just need better health care or even eyeglasses, while others could make big gains with tutoring or support for undiagnosed learning disabilities.

However, there are additional consequences of growing up poor that cannot be remediated so easily and that contribute to poor literacy, absenteeism and poor academic achievement. Iron-deficiency anemia, which can impair cognitive ability, is twice as common among poor children, while an estimated 10% of poor students have dangerous levels of lead in their blood, which can lead to learning disabilities and decreased intelligence. Poor kids are more likely to be born premature and with low birth weights, which can also cause learning disabilities and impaired cognitive development. Simply living in a family that is experiencing financial uncertainty can create stress and the overproduction of the hormone cortisol, which can damage memory and lead to chronic health consequences that increase absenteeism. Financial uncertainty also increases the likelihood of having to move and change schools. A 1994 report by the General Accounting Office found that 41% of students who changed schools frequently were below grade level in reading and 33% were below grade level in math, compared to 26% and 17%, respectively, for those who remained at the same schools. Poor children are also less likely to have a safe, quiet place to study when they get home or to have someone who can help them with their work. During summer, they are less likely to go on intellectually stimulating vacations, take enriching classes and workshops, or play organized sports.

While it is true that some poor kids do beat the odds and succeed in school, it is these hard to remedy problems that explain why so many other poor kids continue to fail in school despite all the interventions, supports and reforms that educators have implemented. It is time to stop glorifying the few schools that have supposedly beaten the odds by getting poor kids to succeed. Even with all the extra funding and the ridiculously long hours their teachers are expected to work, the majority of poor kids are still going to slip through the cracks, because they are still poor, malnourished, untreated for their health problems, poisoned by the toxins in their homes and neighborhoods and stressed by their family’s financial insecurity. If we really want to close the achievement gap, then we need to start by closing the wealth gap.

  1. Allensworth, E. M., & Easton, J. Q. (2007). What matters for staying on-track and graduating in Chicago Public High Schools: A close look at course grades, failures, andattendance in the freshman year. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, Consortium on Chicago School Research.
  2.  MacIver, Martha A. (2011) Moving Forward to Improve Graduation Rates in Baltimore City, Baltimore Education Research Consortium, Baltimore, Md. April 2011
  3. Alexander, Karl L., Entwisle, Doris R., and Kabbani, Nader (2001), “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Early Risk Factors at Home and School,” Teachers College Record
  4. Alexander, Karl L., Entwisle, Doris R., and Kabbani, Nader (2000), “The Dropout Process in Life Course Perspective: Part I, Profiling Risk Factors at Home and School,” Balitmore, MD. John Hopkins University.


  1. Hi Michael! Thanks for referencing my post. The Allensworth and Easton study was one of those referenced by Dr. Khanna in the presentation to the Curriculum & Program committee last week. I don't have the other cites though if you're interested I'm sure Dr. Khanna can provide them.

  2. Thank you, for the references. I wouldn't mind seeing the others,too, if you can get them from Dr. Khanna.