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National Center on Secondary Education and Transition

Increasing Rates of School Completion
Moving From Policy and Research to Practice

A Manual for Policymakers, Administrators, and Educators


The graduation rate for students with disabilities and other student populations continues to be far below the national average. According to the 23rd Report to Congress, only 57% of youth with disabilities graduated with regular diplomas during the 1998-1999 school year (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Other student populations who have disproportionately high rates of dropout include those from low socio-economic circumstances or single-parent families and those who are identified as Native American or Hispanic/Latino (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002; Rosenthal, 1998). The problem of dropout can no longer be ignored, given the associated negative impact on individuals and society.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has focused recent attention on the problem of dropout and is driving efforts to increase graduation rates for all students. This law holds schools accountable for student progress using indicators of adequate yearly progress (AYP), including measures of academic performance and rates of school completion. Educators, administrators, and policymakers at district and state levels are in need of interventions that will increase high school graduation for all students, especially those at risk of school failure. With the recent emphasis on accountability, personnel from local and state education agencies are charged with developing programs that engage students in school and learning, ensure acquisition of academic and social skills necessary for adulthood, and result in high rates of school completion.

Programs and practices designed to prevent dropout have been implemented in schools across the country for decades. These practices vary and include counseling services, mentoring programs, tutoring, attendance monitoring, and after-school programs. Unfortunately, the extent to which these interventions are systematically targeted for disengaged learners is unclear, and closer examination suggests many of these programs and practices lack research or evaluation data documenting effectiveness (Lehr, Hansen, Sinclair, & Christenson, 2003). The resources required for program implementation in terms of time, staff, and dollars point to the need for clear evidence of effectiveness. Additionally, the current federal administration has drawn increased attention to the need for educational decisions grounded in scientifically based evidence (Feuer, Towne, & Shavelson, 2002).

This Essential Tool provides a synthesis of research-based dropout prevention and intervention and offers examples of interventions that show evidence of effectiveness. This has proven to be a difficult task because the intervention research on dropout and school completion that can be used to inform practice is incomplete (Dynarski & Gleason, 2002; Lehr et al., 2003; Sutherland & MacMillan, 2001). Although there is not yet a solid foundation of research on dropout intervention and prevention from which to make strong conclusions, there is information that educators, administrators, and policymakers can use to help make informed decisions. This tool is intended as a base of current knowledge that can be built upon as additional interventions are implemented and empirically validated.

Key Question:
What do we know about effective dropout prevention and intervention that is research-based, and how can that information be used to inform practice?

Intended Audience

This Essential Tool manual is intended for state- and district-level education agencies to assist in developing and implementing interventions that will effectively decrease the rate of dropout and improve school completion for students with and without disabilities. The intended audience includes state education agency personnel, district superintendents, special education directors and their staff, principals, and those managing a wide range of alternative education programs. It is hoped that this Essential Tool will enhance dissemination of this information to other organizations and individuals through the intended audience.


This manual is intended to bridge research and practice and was designed with ease of use as a guiding set of strategies. The Essential Tool includes practical information to improve educational outcomes for youth with and without disabilities. The text is concise; important points are bulleted or highlighted for easy use and reference. In addition, reproducible handouts are provided.


This manual is intended to assist in producing the following outcomes.

  • Increase awareness and knowledge of current theory and research on dropout prevention and intervention.
  • Increase awareness and knowledge of data-based interventions that show evidence of effectiveness.
  • Improve programming addressing dropout prevention and intervention for students with and without disabilities, resulting in increased rates of school completion.

Getting Started

How is this Manual Organized?

This manual has four parts, each designed to provide information about various aspects of dropout prevention and intervention. It is designed so that it is not necessary to start at the beginning. Instead, you can scan the summaries below, decide what part will be of most help to you, and begin there.

Part I: What Do We Know About Dropout Prevention?

This section provides answers to questions such as:

  • Why is preventing dropout important?
  • How are dropout rates measured?
  • Who drops out and why?
  • What should we do about the situation?
  • What elements should be included in dropout prevention programs?

Part II: How Were Sample Intervention Programs Selected?

This section describes the process that was used to select the sample programs and strategies that are included in Part III.

Part III: What Works in Dropout Prevention?

If you’re looking for information about research-based interventions, this part contains detailed information about 11 programs and strategies.

Part IV: Where Else Can I Go for More Information?

This part provides information on dropout prevention and related materials for presentations or handouts.

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Introduction & Getting Started

Part I: What Do We Know About Dropout Prevention?

Part II: How Were Sample Intervention Programs Selected?

  • The Need for Examples of Effective Interventions
  • Search Process & Initial Criteria
  • Raising the Bar
  • Final Parameters for Selection
  • Abstracts: Coding & Definitions

Part III: What Works in Dropout Prevention?

Part IV: Where Else Can I Go for More Information?

  • Related Resources & Organizations
  • Journal Articles & Related Publications
  • Web Sites Providing Data on Dropout Rates

Appendix: Reproducible Handouts on Dropout Prevention


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Citation: Lehr, C. A., Johnson, D. R., Bremer, C. D., Cosio, A., & Thompson, M. (2004). Essential tools: Increasing rates of school completion: Moving from policy and research to practice. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.

Permission is granted to duplicate this publication in its entirety or portions thereof. Upon request, this publication will be made available in alternative formats. For additional copies of this publication, or to request an alternate format, please contact: Institute on Community Integration Publications Office, 109 Pattee Hall, 150 Pillsbury Drive SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, (612) 624-4512, icipub@umn.edu.

This document was published by the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET). NCSET is supported through a cooperative agreement #H326J000005 with the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Department of Education Programs, and no official endorsement should be inferred. The University of Minnesota, the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition are equal opportunity employers and educators.