Preventing High School Drop-Out in the Middle Grades: Effects of Instructional Relevance On Persistence Toward Graduation
Methods: Student ninth and tenth grade school administrative outcomes data for 2010-2011, test scores from grades three-eight, were merged with data from the RCT. Education and socioeconomic control variables included: end-of-grade math and reading tests for grades 3-8, lunch program participation, special education enrollment, living with a single parent, and student race and gender. Main independent variable was middle school treatment assignment with two dependent variables: course credits toward graduation (CTG; total for ninth and tenth grades, indicates progress toward graduation) and 10th grade unexcused absences (UA; an indication of behavioral engagement in school). We estimated two structural equation growth models in Mplus to test for the presence of direct or indirect effects of the CareerStart middle school intervention on CTG and UA.
Results: There were 2939 students who participated in the middle school RCT who were still enrolled in the school district in 10th grade. The CTG model had moderate fit (RMSEA=.06, CFI=.95). Consistent with previous findings, CareerStart participation resulted in a .25 standard deviation increase in the middle school math end-of-grade score slope (p<0.01). A one standard deviation unit increase in the math slope was associated with 1 more CTG in 10th grade. Reading end-of-grade scores were not directly related to CTG. The UA model had similar fit (RMSEA=.06, CFI=.95). CS participation resulted in a .25 standard deviation increase in the middle school UA slope (p<0.01). A one-unit increase in the UA slope was associated with 25 fewer class periods of unexcused absences (p<.01). Treatment assignment and reading end-of-grade scores were not directly related to UA.
Conclusions and Implications: Our findings indicate participation in CareerStart has lasting effects on behavioral engagement (attending class) and academic performance (passing courses which accrue credits toward graduation) two years into high school. These findings fit the theory-of-change model for CareerStart that advancing relevance of lessons, promotes higher student engagement in middle school, that increased engagement continues into high school, making instructional relevance in middle school a high school drop-out prevention strategy. The policy and practice implications revolve around the well established pattern of decreasing student engagement across the middle grades, predicting a trajectory toward drop-out. Drop-out prevention needs to start at the beginning of middle school and address student engagement. Strategies that help students see the career relevance of what they are learning is one effective approach.