The number of students on track to graduate high school continues to steadily decline, and the number of students enrolling in a four-year college remains below pre-pandemic levels, according to new data from the State Department of Education.
These figures are particularly stark when looking at students who are low-income, learning English as a second language or have disabilities — collectively known as “high needs” students. According to the data, 82 percent of ninth-graders last year were on track to graduate high school, compared to 88 percent pre-pandemic. But for high-needs ninth-graders, that number dropped from 81 percent before the pandemic to 74 percent last year.
“On-track to high school graduation is at about the lowest levels that we have seen in the system — and that is concerning,” Ajit Gopalakrishnan, chief performance officer for the State Department of Education, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday. “Those on-track rates … are a harbinger for four-year on-time graduation, so we need to watch and and really take action on that particular item.”
The same holds true when looking at enrollment in colleges. The percentage of “high needs” students enrolling in a four-year college dropped from 59 percent pre-pandemic to 52 percent in 2021 and remained there in 2022.
For the first time, the state’s four-year high school graduation rate also declined slightly — from 89.6 percent to 88.9 percent.
Gopalakrishnan noted that the state had increased the graduation requirements last year, but that the rates of students on-track to graduation were declining even before this. He told CT Examiner the increase had been pending for over a decade, and that most schools had already increased graduation requirements in earlier years.
At the same time, the number of high school juniors and seniors defined as being ready for college increased slightly — from 43.5 percent to 44.3 percent — a rise which Gopalakrishnan attributed to more students taking classes that offer both high school and college credit, known as dual credit courses.
But that “postsecondary readiness” number has sharp differences based on race. Last year, only 9 percent of Black students and 11 percent of Hispanic students met the SAT benchmark indicating college readiness, while 43 percent of white students did the same.
That gap is smaller when looking at dual credit courses. Last year, about 16 percent of Black and Hispanic high school students earned at least three college credits, compared to 28.5 percent of white students.
The state data dovetails with a recent report from the Dalio Foundation, in partnership with Boston Consulting Group, which found one in five young people in the state were either at risk of not graduating high school or had dropped out and were not employed or engaged in a workforce program. The report also said that one in three high schoolers — or 56,000 statewide — were at risk of not graduating in 2022.
“This statewide crisis hits every single town,” Andrew Ferguson, the chief education officer at the Dalio Foundation, told the State Board of Education on Wednesday.
The report linked this number to the high chronic absenteeism rates in Connecticut which, although they have dropped slightly since the height of the pandemic, remain at 20 percent — nearly twice the pre-pandemic rate.
After the presentation Wednesday, Gopalakrishnan said the chronic absenteeism rate was high across the country and across grade levels.
“Connecticut is not alone in this,” he said. “It is a national phenomenon.”
State Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Charles Hewes noted that last year, a trifecta of COVID, RSV and flu that spread during the fall and winter may have contributed to the high absenteeism rates, along with parents’ ongoing hesitancy in the wake of COVID.
“So not only were kids sick — common cold, whatever, stomach bug, all that traditional stuff that we hate — but beyond that, parents also have questions. … ‘When do I send my child to school? They have the sniffles, is that OK?’ This is immediately post-pandemic,” said Hewes, adding that parents tended to keep their children home rather than risk sending them to school.
Hewes also connected the drop in graduation preparedness to the number of students who were regularly out of school, and therefore not in the classroom learning.
“If a student is not physically there, that has implications not only for what they’ve learned, but also the passing of those courses. And the passing of those courses are one of the metrics we use to determine whether or not they’re on track,” he said.
Hewes said preliminary chronic absentee data from September showed the numbers had returned almost to pre-pandemic levels, which was encouraging. And Gopalakrishnan said the district’s Learner Engagement Attendance Program, focused on outreach to chronically absent students and their families, had succeeded in decreasing the number of chronically absent students in the highest need districts.
The Dalio report found that the number of young people at risk of not graduating high school or who had left high school without a path to employment were highest in the state’s eight largest cities. The number of at-risk high schoolers ranged from 28 percent in Norwalk to 53 percent in Hartford.
But smaller towns, particularly on the far eastern side of the state and in the northwest corner, also showed high rates of high school students at risk of not graduating and young people without work.
It also found that the number of young people considered “disconnected” — out of school and without a path to work — had hovered around 60,000 to 70,000 each year since 2015. That number is much higher among young people of color, and especially young men of color.
“This is not caused by COVID. Yes, it’s true COVID has accelerated this crisis for young people, but it didn’t cause it,” Ferguson said.
The report also found that interaction with state agencies like the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and being placed in alternative education programs correlated with higher rates of disconnection.
“By being exposed to traumas, by being exposed to or living in poverty, by moving two or more times between schools during a high school experience — those in-school and out-of-school factors and others elevate the likelihood, increase the risk of young people experiencing disconnection in the state,” Ferguson said.
Gopalakrishnan said the State Department of Education had invested more than $500,000 in waiving AP exam fees for low-income students, and was supporting initiatives like the FAFSA challenge, free community college through the PACT program and a scholarship for young people wanting to become teachers as ways to improve the college readiness rates. The state also released grant funding to 89 schools to increase their dual credit offerings.
In addition to suggestions of support for community organizations and intensive case management, Ferguson recommended that the State Board of Education invest in publishing a similar report every year.
“We believe the data tells us we have a statewide crisis. We also believe our experience tells us it’s largely unseen and unspoken,” Ferguson said.