Urban Wire DC Schools’ Stunning Exit Rate
Jennifer Comey
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As the summer draws to an end and children gear up to return to school, we wanted to take a moment to highlight those children who do not return to school. The so-called “exit rate” is staggering!

Our latest research based on the 2007-08 school year found that of the roughly 68,000 public students enrolled in the traditional DCPS and public charter schools, 20 percent didn’t appear in official school records the following school year. Comparable studies in New York City found the exit rate to be only 7 percent there. In Baltimore, it’s 10 percent.

Now let’s look at these kids by grade level, separating out those grades where students typically leave the public school system, such as grades 5 and 8 (table 1). (We excluded 12th graders altogether.) The highest shares of exits occurred in early childhood (grades preschool through kindergarten) and high school (9th through 11th grade).

Table 1: Exit rates by grade categories between the 2007-08 and 2008-09 school years

Students leave a particular school for many reasons. One of the biggest problems is drop-outs—witness the 22 percent exit rate for 9th through 11th grades. Other researchers have identified the negative impacts of dropping out, as well as the factors and conditions driving the ill-fated decision to quit school.

Another group of students leaves for other reasons. In the District, a small share of students will transfer to a parochial or other private school between school years. Some have speculated that more affluent parents take advantage of the District’s universal pre-kindergarten program before switching their student to a private elementary school. While enrollments in the public early education grades have been steadily growing, the exit rates of these early grades was 22 percent as well.

Two other reasons for high exit levels across all the grades are the high residential mobility among the District, Maryland, and Virginia. Many families barely notice state lines on local maps. Estimates based on IRS tax-return data suggest that 10 percent of District residents moved away between 2007 and 2008. Of these movers, 21 percent relocated to nearby Prince George’s County and another 16 percent to Montgomery County. The map below reflects this point: note the concentration of exiting students from Ward 8, which borders on Prince George’s County. While these students leave the District and consequently the District’s public school jurisdiction (unless the families decide to pay tuition), most probably remain close by. And there’s a fair chance that these highly mobile students will move back to the District and enroll in its schools again.

Students Exiting the District Are Geographically Concentrated In Ward 8

Sources: District of Columbia Public Schools, District of Columbia Public Charter School Board

Of course, data errors could explain part of the high exit rate. The District has lagged behind in creating its state-level student longitudinal data system prompted by the reporting requirements under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act mostly because it was hard to track students who switched between DCPS and the public charters in the early years. Even so, data errors are unlikely to be numerous or grievous enough to diminish the fact that the District still has an extremely high exit rate.

This analysis prompts more questions that we want to answer. Namely, has the exit rates changed recently, especially after Chancellor’s Rhee tenure and since improvements in tracking students has occurred? Stay posted for future blogs.

Research Areas Children and youth Child welfare
Tags K-12 education Washington, DC, research initiative
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV