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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

How are Dropout Rates Measured? What are Associated Issues?

Finding a Common Definition of Dropout: Are We All Talking About the Same Thing?

The calculation of dropout rates varies according to how the concept is defined. Studies show that a variety of definitions are used (Hammack, 1986; MacMillan, Balow, Widaman, Borthwick-Duffy, & Hendrick, 1990, Thurlow, Johnson, & Sinclair, 2002). Areas contributing to definitional confusion include:

  • Variation in grade levels or age of students who can be classified as dropouts. For example, some figures include only tenth through twelfth grades, whereas others include data from ninth through twelfth grades.
  • Variation in the length of time that a student is required to miss school before they are considered a dropout (ranges from 15 to 45 days of unexcused absence).
  • Variation in the length of the accounting period during which dropout is calculated.
  • Exclusion of some groups of students from the calculation of dropout rates (e.g., those who receive special education services).
  • Variation in defining which programs count toward enrollment. Some calculations include students enrolled in GED programs, night school, or other alternative programs, and some only include those enrolled in traditional day schools.

In addition, clerical problems and accounting procedures for students as they transfer in and out of programs add to the difficulty of obtaining an accurate picture of the dropout rate. The lack of effective communication and tracking procedures between public and private schools, and within school districts and across districts, leads to misidentification and inaccurate calculations. For students with emotional/behavioral disabilities who change schools often, accurate documentation of exit and entrance into schools over time may be especially challenging (Sinclair, Christenson, Thurlow, & Evelo, 1994).

Various Methods of Calculating Dropout Rates

School districts, states, and national databases also vary in the formulas they use to calculate dropout rates (Coley, 1995; MacMillan, 1991). There are three kinds of dropout rate statistics. These are (a) event, annual, or incidence rate; (b) status or prevalence rate; and (c) cohort or longitudinal rate. Each has a different definition and produces a different rate and slightly different picture of the magnitude of the problem (see Table 1).

Table 1: Calculating Dropout Rates

Type of Dropout Statistic



Relative Value

Event Rate (may also be referred to as the annual rate or incidence rate)

Measures the proportion of students who drop out in a single year without completing high school.

Five out of every 100 young adults (ages 15-24 in grades 10-12) enrolled in high school in October 1999 left school before October 2000 without successfully completing a high school program.

Typically yields the smallest rate.

Status Rate (may also be referred to as the prevalence rate)

Measures the proportion of students who have not completed high school and are not enrolled at one point in time, regardless of when they dropped out.

In October 2000, 3.8 million young adults were not enrolled in a high school program and had not yet completed high school. These youth accounted for 10.9% of youth ages 16-24 in the U.S. in 2000 (NCES, 2002).

Yields a rate that typically falls between event and cohort rates.

Cohort Rate (may also be referred to as the longitudinal rate)

Measures what happens to a single group (or cohort) of students over a period of time.

The district percentage of ninth graders in Minneapolis who were reported as dropouts four years later was 35.2% (Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning, 2000).

Typically yields the largest rate of dropout.

Source: Adapted from Thurlow, Sinclair, & Johnson, 2002.

Implications of Inconsistency in Defining and Calculating Dropout

There have been numerous attempts to identify the best way to calculate the dropout rate (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). When the definition of dropout and the manner in which it is calculated are not consistent, comparisons are difficult to make, and when comparisons are made, interpretations may be faulty. Currently, many states are revising their definitions and methods of calculating dropout, which limits comparability across time. Declines or increases in the longitudinal or cohort dropout rate must be carefully examined to determine whether legitimate comparisons have been made.

Comparing the progress of students with disabilities to their peers without disabilities is especially complicated because the definition of dropout and calculation differ between the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Common Core of Data. For example, current OSEP publications (see, for example, US Department of Education, 2001) calculate the dropout rate by dividing the number of students aged 14 and older by the total number of students in the same age group who are known to have left school (i.e., graduated with a standard diploma, received a certificate of completion, reached maximum age for services, died, or dropped out). NCES calculates the dropout rate by dividing the number of 9th-12th grade dropouts by the number of 9th -12th grade students who were enrolled the year before (NCES, 2002). Although both calculations yield an annual or event dropout rate, NCES specifies that counts be conducted on October 1 (i.e., October 1, 1997 – October 1, 1998) while OSEP allows states to choose their twelve-month reporting period.

Calculating Graduation Rates

To complicate matters, dropout rates do not simply or directly translate to an accurate graduation rate. Multiple methods and definitions can result in what appears to be conflicting information. For example, it is possible to have a low rate of dropout based on event or status calculations, and to have a low rate of graduation as well. The formula and parameters (e.g., age, grade, accountability period) used to determine the rate must be carefully considered and explained.

NCLB requires states to define graduation rates in a rigorous and standardized manner (e.g., the percentage of ninth graders who graduate from high school four years later). Furthermore, alternative graduation certificates, such as the General Education Development (GED) program, cannot be counted as equivalent to graduating from high school. Graduation rates must be reported annually to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, those rates must steadily increase each year, reaching proficient levels by spring 2014. NCLB defines “graduation rate” as the percentage of students, measured from the beginning of high school, who graduated with a regular diploma in the standard number of years (Joftus & Maddox-Dolan, 2003). Variation from this definition must be explained in state accountability plans.

A focus on measuring graduation rates is conceptually linked to recent increased emphasis on the importance of promoting student engagement to enhance school completion. However, due to lack of standardized definitions and methods for computing dropout rates and graduation rates, interpretation must be carefully considered. Until a standard procedure is established and used across districts, states, and national reporting agencies, reports of dropout and graduation rates can be interpreted accurately only when accompanied by explanations of how the numbers were derived.

Example of an Approved Accountability Plan: New York

How graduation rate is defined. The graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students who have completed high school within four years of their first entry into ninth grade as measured by annual cohort, or for students with disabilities not in a specific grade level, by age 21. Students graduating from state-approved, five-year high school programs that result in a receipt of industry certification in addition to a high school diploma will be counted in the graduation rate. Any student who dropped out or entered a high school equivalency program will be counted as a high school completer.

How graduation rate is measured. The graduation rate is measured as the percentage of students who have completed high school within four years of the first entry into ninth grade as measured by annual cohort or, for underage students with disabilities, by age 21. To make AYP, schools must meet or exceed the performance standard or decrease the difference between the previous year's performance and the standard by a set percentage.

Source: Joftus & Maddox-Dolan, 2003.


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, 2025 East River Parkway, Minneapolis, MN 55414, (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.