Kids just don’t wake up one morning and decide, “I think I am going to drop out of school today.” Dropping out of high school begins much earlier, before students even enroll in their freshman courses.

Much of the focus of drop out prevention in the past has been on making sure high school freshmen are coming to school and earning the credits they need. Research shows, however, that the behaviors that lead to dropping out begin much earlier. Therefore, just checking in on freshman may be insufficient for preventing dropping out. The good news is that with quality data, states and school districts can “catch” students who are at risk and provide interventions to keep them on track for success.

Tennessee has made some important strides in collecting education data and emphasizing its use to improve student outcomes. Tennessee connects a rich set of student-level data including course grades, attendance, college readiness exam results, and can connect this robust information with individual teachers, which provides a strong foundation for all stakeholders to use data to improve student achievement. Implementing robust statewide longitudinal (i.e., data collected on the same student across years) data systems that provide actionable information on individual students’ careers beginning in early childhood and continuing into the work force will not only help the state reach its goal of 90 percent of all students graduating from high school by 2015, but also help ensure those students are prepared for college and 21st century careers.

Though Tennessee has made great strides in increasing its graduation rate over the past decade, the state still has work to do to decrease the drop out rate and ensure that students are college and career ready. In order to effectively ensure that students remain on track for success, states should develop an early warning system in partnership with their districts. Early warning systems compile actionable data in ways that we normally do not hear about. Historically, parents, teachers, and principals have only had access to snapshot (i.e., data collected at a point in time) data to inform them about the success of their students after-the-fact. For example, students’ TVAAS growth SCOREs, or their proficiency rates on state tests such as the TCAP are generated at the end of school year and are often not reported out until the summer, which is too late to intervene when students are demonstrating patterns that lead to dropping out during the school year. Early warning systems provide teachers with the growth and proficiency data that are imperative for making instructional decisions, and go further to include critical indicators like discipline incidents and attendance patterns, both in real time and over a student’s career, that help teachers and schools identify the students who might be slipping. Having these early warning systems allow teachers and schools to provide interventions to students based on their individual needs at the earliest moment possible. Providing targeted interventions to students who would otherwise slip through the cracks is a corner stone of making sure Tennessee students stay on track to complete high school and succeed after graduation.

Implementing early warning data systems, and thereby having a key tool to prevent students from dropping out of high school and keeping them on track to college and career readiness requires state level policies and district and school-level capacity. All states need to continue to create policies that facilitate the integration of data across students’ education career- from early childhood to the work force- and create a full picture of every child’s learning. States must also collect and report leading indicators that enable superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents to make informed decisions about individual students every day. Decisions must be made about what triggers- such as a pattern of discipline issues, a certain number of days missed, or low  GPA’s- that send teachers and school leaders into prevention mode, and what they will do to help get those students get back on track towards graduation. Focusing on improving the factors that research has shown indicate that a student is at-risk of falling through the cracks will also lead to improved student achievement and graduation rates- the exact things Tennessee has set out to do.