Compulsory School Attendance: What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy

Much research contributes to the education-policy debate by adding insights on a particular topic. This latest from the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center, on the other hand, is interesting for what it doesn’t say: notably, that compulsory school attendance (CSA) has any bearing on graduation rates. Authors compared states with a CSA age of eighteen to those with a CSA age of sixteen or seventeen. Overall, the latter group boasts a graduation rate 1 to 2 percentage points higher than the former—findings that hold when controlling for demographic factors as well. What’s more this slight advantage tracks over time as well: Between 1994-95 and 2008-09, states with a CSA age of sixteen or seventeen moved their graduation rates by 3 percentage points. Their counterparts with a CSA age of eighteen saw no improvement in grad rate. (Remember, these are correlated data: They don’t factor in exit-exam difficulty, graduation requirements, etc.) Further, from a policy perspective, the authors find that few states are able to ensure compliance with mandated changes to CSAs. Which makes one wonder: If compulsory school attendance doesn’t move the needle on graduation rates (and, in fact, is associated with states with lower rates of high school completion) and it isn’t feasibly enforced, why have policymakers—President Obama included—made it such a focal issue?

SOURCE: Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield, Compulsory School Attendance: What Research Says and What It Means for State Policy (Washington, D.C.: Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings, August 2012).

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