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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

Part I: What Do We Know About Dropout Prevention?

Why is Preventing Dropout a Critical and Immediate National Goal?

National Statistics on Dropout and School Completion

Today, nearly all students are expected to graduate from high school. Yet, hundreds of thousands of students in the United States leave school early each year without a diploma (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002). The expectation stated in Goals 2000 was to reach a 90% school completion rate by the year 2000. The most recent report indicates only 17 states have reached this goal (NCES, 2002). Other recent statistics indicating the percentage of eighth-grade students who graduate five years later range from a low of 55% in Florida to a high of 87% in New Jersey (Greene, 2002). Other data point to the severity of the problem across the nation and for various student populations (Children’s Defense Fund, 2001):

  • Approximately 1 in 8 children in the United States never graduate from high school.
  • Based on calculations per school day (180 days of seven hours each), one high school student drops out every nine seconds.

Some groups of students are at greater risk of dropping out of school due to circumstance or ability. Consider the following statistics:

  • Young adults of Hispanic descent are more likely to have dropped out of school than Black or White young adults (64% Hispanic, 84% Black, and 92% White; ages 18-24 who completed school) (NCES, 2002).
  • On average, students from low-income families are at increased risk of not completing school (dropout rate is 10% for low income, 5.2% for middle income, and 1.6% high income) (NCES, 2002).

On average, students with disabilities are at greatest risk of dropping out of school.

  • According to the 23rd Report to Congress, only 57% of youth with disabilities graduated with regular diplomas during the 1999-2000 school year (U.S. Department of Education, 2001).
  • The dropout rate for students with emotional/behavioral disabilities is approximately twice that of general education students (Wagner, 1995).
  • Of youth with disabilities who drop out of school, the highest proportions are students with learning disabilities (32%) and students with emotional/behavioral disabilities (50%) (Wagner et al., 1991).
Significant Costs to Individuals and Society When Youth Do Not Complete School

The number of students in our nation who are not completing school is particularly alarming in today’s society because there are few employment opportunities that pay living wages and benefits for those who have neither completed a high school education nor acquired necessary basic skills. On average, youth who drop out are more likely than others to experience negative outcomes such as unemployment, underemployment, and incarceration. High school dropouts are less likely to be employed than high school graduates (U.S. Department of Labor, 2003). Nearly 80% of individuals in prison do not have a high school diploma (Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1995). According to the National Longitudinal Transition Study of special education students, the arrest rates of youth with disabilities who dropped out were significantly higher than for those who had graduated (Wagner et al., 1991). Three to five years after dropping out, the cumulative arrest rate for youth with serious emotional disturbance was 73% (Wagner, 1995).

Students who do not complete school cost taxpayers billions of dollars in lost revenues, welfare, unemployment, crime prevention, and prosecution (Joint Economic Committee, 1991). Approximately 47% of high school dropouts are employed compared to 64% of high school graduates not in college (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). Students who graduate from high school earn an average of $9,245 more per year than students who do not complete school (Employment Policy Foundation, 2001). In light of the negative consequences of dropout for society and individuals, facilitating school completion for all students must be a priority for educators, administrators, and policymakers across the country.

Legislative Impetus to Focus on Increasing School Completion for All Students

Recent legislation has focused national attention on increasing the rate of school completion. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) holds schools accountable for student progress using indicators of adequate yearly progress (AYP) including measures of academic performance and rates of school completion. Schools are identified as needing improvement if their overall performance does not annually increase, or if identified subgroups do not meet specified criteria.

The use of statewide assessments is one of the primary ways to measure student performance. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997) requires the participation of students with disabilities in standards-based reform and accountability systems. State and local school districts have identified what students should know and be able to do, and have implemented assessments to ensure that students have attained the identified knowledge and skills. In addition, 27 states have implemented or are implementing high stakes assessments, which are used to determine whether students will graduate from school with a regular diploma (Johnson & Thurlow, 2003). The impact of these requirements on the rate of school completion is uncertain, but it is clear that pressure is mounting to develop educational 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.

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.