The report's author, Donald J. Hernandez, doesn't say any of what I'm about to tell you in his summary. But since he's juggling a few different variables that are all important in their own right, I thought I'd repackage his stats to give you the final word on What Is Most Likely to Make You a High School Dropout. IS IT: Your 3rd grade reading level, as the report's author seems to imply? Your race? Or your family's history of poverty?
My unscientific ranking--drumroll, please:
- Your reading level! Of those surveyed, those who ranked below "Proficient" on the NAEP reading test (somewhat shockingly, over two-thirds of all fourth graders fit that miserable category in 2009, although that's really nothing new) were about 4.0 times more likely to drop out than those who scored "Proficient" or "Advanced". The categories below "Proficient" include "Basic" and "Below Basic".
- Poverty! The measure used here was "has experienced poverty for at least a year, at some point during childhood", and not the commonly-used "eligibility for free or reduced lunch", so good luck trying to compare this study with any other study ever conducted. If your family fell below the poverty line at some point in your childhood, that makes you 3.7 times more likely to have dropped out.
- Your reading level! Wait, didn't I rank that at #1? Yes, but it depends how you look at it. If you scored "Below Basic" instead of a respectable "Basic", your chances of dropping out got 2.6 times higher. Or if you dropped from "Proficient" to "Basic", the number is 2.3. See what I did there? Well, you know what they say about statistics.
- Being black or Hispanic, instead of white! The black and Hispanic populations both came in with a 2.3-times-greater-chance of dropping out. If you look only at those black, Hispanic and white students who had experienced poverty, this actually reduces to just a 50% greater likelihood for the kids of color. If you've never been poor though, as a black or Hispanic kid, you're still twice as likely to drop out as a white kid.
As much as I appreciate this line of inquiry, none of it says anything about what is causing what. There's a great argument to be made for making sure kids can read by 3rd grade--and the Annie E. Casey Foundation knows how to make it persuasively--but who's to say that 3rd grade reading and the tendency to drop out aren't at least partially by-products of a series of other factors?
For example: in at least some instances, it seems social and emotional learning is where we're giving kids the short end of the stick. And it's often that very kind of learning--or the lack thereof--that can make reading seem hard, high school pointless, poverty self-perpetuating, and race a positive determinant.