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Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery
John H. Tyler Magnus Lofstrom

Second-Chance Programs

Many national education systems around the world tend to channel students into particular pathways at an early age, with few opportunities for mid-course corrections. In contrast, the decentralized U.S. system has relatively porous boundaries between different "paths" through the system and, in particular, tends to offer "second-chance" options that can allow for mid-course corrections. We now look at the second-chance options for students who have made the dropout decision.

As measured by sheer numbers, the most important second-chance option for dropouts is, by far, the GED program. Conceived and developed in the late 1940s as a way to certify that returning World War II veterans who had left their high school classrooms to serve in the war were ready for college or the labor market, the program has grown from 50,000 test takers in 1955 to about 670,000 individuals who attempted the exams in 2007.84

As noted, GED holders do not fare as well as regular high school graduates in the labor market, and they get much less postsecondary education. What do these findings say about the GED as a second-chance option for dropouts? The answer is that it depends on the skills that are in place when one drops out of school. For an academically able student who leaves school with a solid set of basic cognitive skills, there is little advantage to acquiring a GED except to move into postsecondary education.85 Because the academically able person can probably pass the GED exams with little extra effort or preparation, the GED is unlikely to lead to extra human capital accumulation.

On the other hand, for a person who leaves school with poor reading, writing, or math to improve these skills enough to pass the exams. For such a person, pursuing a GED could increase marketable skills, making the GED a valuable second-chance option. To the extent that the market rewards these skills, such students could expect better labor market outcomes.86

Although the GED is the preeminent second-chance option, students who have left school also have opportunities to get a regular high school diploma, typically in an alternative school operated by the school district. These alternative schools structure coursework and class time to better accommodate the work schedules and parenting responsibilities of students who have left or are contemplating leaving school.

In New York, for example, thirty "transfer high schools" in the 2007–08 school year served some 9,000 students. These alternative schools, which operate out of the Office of Multiple Pathways to Graduation in the New York City Department of Education, are designed for students who are "over-age and under-credited or have dropped out of school."87 As this target population shows, the line between dropout prevention and second-chance option is not always distinctly drawn: some programs and schools serve both purposes.

A second alternative school option in New York is the Young Adult Borough Centers (YABC), evening academic programs for students "who might be considering dropping out because they are behind or because they have adult responsibilities that make attending school in the daytime difficult."88 In the 2007–08 school year, twenty-two YABCs served about 5,500 students. When students earn all required credits and pass all required exams, they are awarded a diploma from their regular high school.89

New York's transfer high schools and YACBs, like most other alternative school programs such as Chicago's Evening High School Program, try to address dropout risk factors that are more difficult for more traditional high schools to address. Alternative schools tend to be smaller and to have lower student-teacher ratios. They try to offer a more individualized and personalized education experience, and they are often characterized by flexible course scheduling or non-traditional school hours, or both. These schools also tend to offer more support programs for students, such as child care for teen parents, and they often focus on connections to college or work, or both. Although alternative high schools are increasingly seen as an important tool for both dropout prevention and dropout "recovery," researchers as yet know little about how well these schools achieve stated goals.

There are two other routes to a high school diploma for students who have dropped out of school. One requires the student to earn the necessary high school credits that were lacking when he or she left school. These credit-earning programs are often delivered by community-based organizations that have an agreement with a sanctioned diploma-granting organization such as the local school district or with the state department of education. No hard data exist on the numbers of students who receive a high school diploma by going back and earning the necessary credits.

A second route to a high school diploma for school dropouts is through programs that allow individuals to demonstrate that they have high school–level skills. Although some states have developed and offer a diploma program that relies on demonstration, a national program has been in existence since 1979. Students in the National External Diploma Program (NEDP) demonstrate their high school–level skills by "applying their life experiences in real-life situations."90 When an NEDP assessor certifies that the applicant has met benchmark skill levels, the cooperating school district awards a high school diploma. This alternative high school diploma program is as yet a very minor part of the second-chance landscape; only 1,700 people nationwide earned a high school diploma through the NEDP program in 2006–07.91

In terms of both human capital accumulation and education credentialing, the nation's community colleges provide another second-chance option for dropouts. Most community colleges have an open-enrollment policy combined with placement exams that determine whether applicants are ready for postsecondary education credit programs or whether they first need to complete remediation courses to raise their skill levels. Open admission policies, combined with relatively low tuition and an array of remedial courses, make community colleges a potentially viable second-chance option for school dropouts who wish to move directly into postsecondary education.

Of course many dropouts may well need more from a second-chance program than human capital accumulation or education credentialing. Given the many different factors that are often associated with the dropout decision, dropouts often need help with non-academic issues to get their life back on track. Since most program evaluation studies have focused on the effectiveness of programs in reducing dropout rates or improving educational attainment or labor market outcomes, researchers have little information on how existing programs achieve these goals by improving the overall quality of life of dropouts.