Usually when a school district contracts with the National Student Clearinghouse to track postsecondary outcomes for its high school graduates, the idea is to use the information internally to assess how well the district is preparing its students for college.
Within District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) — which serves approximately 48,000 students in the nation’s capital — administrators are using the data for an entirely different purpose, namely, to determine how well their graduates are faring at particular institutions of higher education.
And if it turns out that there’s a particular college or university where DCPS graduates don’t fare so well — specifically where the graduation rate for DCPS or Pell Grant-eligible students is less than 40 percent — that institution doesn’t get to come to DCPS’s college expo, and DCPS students can’t use money from the district’s college tour fund to visit the school.
The idea is to use the National Student Clearinghouse data to steer DCPS students toward colleges and universities where they are likely to succeed.
“What we realized is that whenever possible, we should be looking at college completion data at the most granular level for our students,” says Dr. Erin Ward Bibo, deputy chief for college and career education at DCPS.
“What we are trying to do is empower students and, more importantly, the staff who work with students with the data,” Bibo says. “We feel they need to make smart college choices. The reality is students and their families and staff haven’t always had this data and so they’ve been going off of whatever they had.”
DCPS is among a small but growing number of public school districts that are taking this approach, according to officials at the National Student Clearinghouse, a Virginia-based nonprofit that tracks student outcome data for member schools and districts.
“What DCPS is doing is — just like all those schools — they’re using that data from the clearinghouse but also building it into a very interactive part of their student advising system,” says Dr. Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the National Student Clearinghouse.
The effort has gained positive recognition in some higher education policy circles.
Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, says as school counselors help students navigate the sometimes complicated transition from high school to post-graduation life, this data can help districts assist their students in making well-informed decisions about where to enroll.
“The DCPS Smart College Choices campaign provides a promising model to help prospective students understand how they are likely to fare based on district-specific outcomes,” Voight says.
Bibo says the idea to examine completion rates for DCPS students at colleges and universities was inspired by CollegeResults.org — a web tool established by the Education Trust to highlight graduation rates at four-year colleges and universities.
Graduation rates on College Results can be broken down and analyzed by subgroups such as “underrepresented minority” or specific ethnic groups.
DCPS determined that if completion rates can be broken down by ethnic group, why not use the clearinghouse data to find out what the completion rate is for a particular school district?
And thus was born the Smart College Choices initiative, which was formally launched in the 2014-2015 school year.
When DCPS began to analyze the data, the findings were sometimes surprising, Bibo says.
She cites the case of two historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) — one deemed more prestigious and with a higher institutional graduation rate than the other — that had disparate graduation rates for DCPS students.
As it turns out, the less prestigious HBCU with the lower overall graduation rate had a completion rate that ended up being 50 percentage points higher for DCPS graduates.
“That’s really important because if we had settled on . . . looking at the institutional level success rates that are available pretty widely online, we would be, in some cases, misguiding them,” Bibo says.
Bibo says institutional graduation rates sometimes mask what happens for DCPS students; from time to time, graduation rates for DCPS students are actually better than the institutional average.
“You have in some cases DCPS students significantly outpacing the institutional graduation rates,” Bibo says. “In some cases DCPS students were graduating at a rate that was lower than the institutional average.”
She says the better performance may in part be attributed to a positive “cohort” effect as students matriculate with their peers.
Armed with this new information about its graduates raises questions about whether DCPS might be able to use the Clearinghouse data to change the behavior of colleges and universities.
It’s a particularly relevant question, given the emergent body of evidence that what institutions do matters when it comes to college completion rates.
“After conducting nearly a decade of research on high-performing universities, we know that institutions that have the most success set clear improvement goals, mine their data to help identify problems and refine practices, and optimize the use of whatever resources they have,” Dr. José Luis Santos, vice president of higher education policy and practice at Education Trust, said recently when the organization released a “Black Student Success” report that examined the top-performing and bottom-performing institutions of higher education.
“University leaders — especially those at the helm of the lowest-performing institutions — must take seriously their responsibility to equitably support the students they enroll,” Santos stated at the time.
When asked if DCPS had plans to use the information it has gleaned from the Clearinghouse data on how well its students are faring at different institutions to influence colleges and universities, Bibo says: “We’ve taken sort of a triaged approach to what we can do with the data we have. So priority one has been to empower our school staff and students and families to the extent that we can with the information we have.”
Bibo says the district also shares data with school staff and “walks them through what that means.”
The district holds “data-driven postsecondary informational sessions” at least twice a year with school leadership, she says.
The objective is to “help school leadership and their teams that work with students on college-going and college choice to understand real outcomes in terms of enrollment than in terms of completion.”
Bibo says it’s difficult to gauge how much it costs to mine the Clearinghouse data to see how DCPS graduates fare at different colleges and universities because the Smart College Choices initiative is not represented by a single line item in the school budget.
Beyond its contractual costs with the National Student Clearinghouse, two staffers work on programming that is associated with the initiative.
The district also relies on its data team to help “clean and analyze” the National Student Clearinghouse data.
Bibo says the analysis of the data has begun to influence school leaders in the district who may have thought a certain college or university was a good pick for DCPS students.
After being presented with the data, she says school leaders are beginning to say: “I’m going to think about that more critically.”
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.