West Virginia Legislative Audit: Big Schools Push Students Out

Last Updated: January 29, 2010

This article appeared in the January 2010 Rural Policy Matters.

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A West Virginia legislative audit report has found that district size exerts greater influence over whether students graduate than other factors including socioeconomic status and academic performance. It concludes that the state should conduct a full review of its school consolidation policy to determine its effects on a full range of academic outcomes. The report also found that the state has underestimated dropout rates and that the rate has not improved in the past 15 years.
The report analyzed graduation rates in its high schools and its 55 school districts, all of which are county wide. It found that a variety of factors known to influence the likelihood of students graduating high school were evident in West Virginia. For example, students who scored at or above the proficiency level on state reading and math tests in 10th grade were more likely to graduate than students whose academic performance lagged. Students whose families were headed by a married couple were more likely to graduate than those whose families were headed by a single female.
Factors not correlated to graduation rates included the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the district, county per capita income, and the percentage of county population, aged 25–44, with a bachelor’s degree.
The audit did, however, find significant negative correlations between dropout rates and district and school size. Larger districts and larger schools had higher dropout rates and rates worsened as size increased. In fact, district size was a more powerful predictor of graduation rate than any other factor, and school size demonstrated more predictive power than all other variables except one (10th grade reading performance).
“It is apparent that large high schools in West Virginia have negative influences on the dropout and graduation rates that are distinct from academic performance. These negative influences are more likely associated with the school environment, student attitudes towards the school, and a lack of interpersonal relationships with faculty members” (p. 30).
The report also noted that there was no relation between school size and academic achievement (p 29). This is an important observation because it acknowledges implicitly that students in consolidated schools do not appear to benefit in other academic ways from large school size.
“Although West Virginia is relatively small in population, it apparently has not escaped the ill-effects of large districts and schools,” the report notes, observing that school consolidation in the state has resulted in larger middle and high schools (p 29).
Noting the range of negative consequences of dropping out for individuals and states (lower income, greater need for public assistance, higher levels of criminal activity, and greater likelihood of continuing a cycle of low educational attainment among the dropout’s own children), the report notes that “attempts to improve the graduation rate by lowering the state’s dropout rate will have substantial long term societal benefits for the state overall” (p 30).
However, it concludes that the state cannot focus exclusively on improving academics without attending to other factors. “The DOE [Department of Education] must address the large-district effects that are present in the school system. Larger high schools and high school class sizes are a portion of the effects from large districts … the DOE needs to take an active role in evaluation or contracting for the evaluation of the effects of school consolidation on education outcomes” (p 34).
The report makes five recommendations related to graduation rate. These include implementing recommendations of the Southern Regional Education Board to make reading improvement a first priority; enhancing the state’s data system for tracking student indicators; calculating the state’s dropout rate more accurately; and the following two recommendations related to school size and consolidation:
  • The Department of Education should consider studying or contracting a study of the full effects of large school districts, large high schools and school consolidation on the graduation and dropout rates, and other education outcomes.
  • The Department of Education should encourage or consider incorporating in appropriate schools and districts a more personalized learning environment that includes establishing small learning communities and creating smaller classes (p 35).
West Virginia Legislative Auditor, Performance Evaluation & Research Division, Department of Education Departmental Review, 01/11/2010. www.legis.state.wv.us/Joint/PERD/perdrep/DeptEd_1_2010.pdf.

Read more from the January 2010 Rural Policy Matters.