How well do our public high schools prepare students—especially low-income students—for future success? A working paper from analysts at Brown and Harvard addresses that question, focusing on a number of consequential middle- and longer-term outcomes.
The analysts use student-level data from the Massachusetts Department of Education, including rich information on demographics, enrollment, test scores, and student intentions (via surveys). Their dataset allows them to control for factors that prior value-added studies have not been able to, such as parents’ level of education and students’ plans after high school. They focus on students who entered ninth grade for the first time during the 2002–03 and 2003–04 school years, which gives them enough time to look at longer-term outcomes, such as college attendance, graduation from two- or four-year colleges, and earnings at roughly age thirty. They also look at short-term outcomes, including test scores, attendance, and whether a student is on track to graduate.
Because of interest in how schooling impacts low-income students, the public high schools in the sample (all 106 of them, including nine charter schools and twenty-seven vocational/technical schools), have enrollments consisting of at least 25 percent low-income students, determined through eligibility for free and reduced-priced lunch in eighth grade. The analysis uses the first public high school a student attended to measure impacts; thus the results include treatment and intent-to-treat outcomes (in light of students who may switch schools after initial identification). Their school value-added model calculates a school’s effect on a given long-term outcome controlling for student prior achievement, demographic characteristics, and the survey data, including parents’ education. Analysts are comparing results from the low-income schools to those of the average school in the total sample.
Similar students who attend schools at the 80th percentile of the value-added distribution (that is, schools good at boosting student achievement) are 6 percentage points more likely to graduate from a four-year college and earn 13 percent, or $3,600, more annually at age thirty compared to peers who attend schools performing at the 20th percentile. Given the many factors that influence students’ later-life outcomes, these school effects are considered quite large.
Next, the analysts look at whether a school’s impact on short-term measures—including tenth grade test scores, attendance, and the advancement of academic progress and college aspirations—predicts its impact on longer-term measures. The answer, mostly, is yes. For instance, schools that advance four-year college graduation rates more tend to be those that improve students’ test scores and college aspirations. And schools that improve two- and four-year college-going also boost students’ earnings. But since short-term measures, like attendance and tenth grade test scores, remain significant predictors of earnings, this suggests that high schools influence earnings above and beyond their impacts on postsecondary educational attainment. They also find that the impact of peers—quantified via a composite measure based on previous research—largely operates through the short-term measures.
What’s more, the schools that improve outcomes the most are not simply those that serve relatively few economically disadvantaged students. When they plot each school’s effect on longer-run outcomes against the share of students from low-income families in the school, they find that some schools that serve high proportions of economically disadvantaged students have substantial positive impacts on their later life outcomes.
Finally, since nearly a quarter of students in the study attend vocational/technical schools, analysts break out their outcomes separately. Compared to non-CTE high schools, they find a unique advantage stemming from some CTE schools; specifically, they significantly raise long-term earnings, even as they have below-average effects on four-year graduation rates. Put another way, the report says the “impact of CTE schools on later earnings does not run through educational attainments.” That bodes well for students in more effective CTE schools who choose to head directly into the workforce and/or delay college enrollment.
All of this is good news. Poverty is not destiny for our young people, as high schools can help make a meaningful difference. Those that improve students’ test scores and college aspirations more than we’d expect also improve longer-run outcomes more than we’d expected, so yes, test scores really do matter. High schools can also offer different pathways for improving different life outcomes for different types of students, but one thing must be the same: a high level of quality.
SOURCE: Preeya P. Mbekeani, John Papay, Ann Mantil, and Richard J. Murnane, “Understanding High Schools’ Effects on Longer-Term Outcomes,” Annenberg Institute at Brown University (February 2023).