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?
What Do We Know About Who Drops Out and Why?
Who Drops Out of School?
Many studies have identified predictors and variables associated with dropout.
In recent years, these variables have been categorized according to the extent
to which they can be influenced to change the trajectory leading to dropout.
Status variables (e.g., socioeconomic standing [SES], disability or ability
level, family structure) are difficult and unlikely to change. On the other
hand, alterable variables (e.g. attendance, identification with school) are
easier to change and can usually be influenced by students, parents, educators,
and community members. Alterable variables are the focus of efforts to increase
Overview of Status Variables Associated with Dropout
(Macmillan, 1991; Rosenthal, 1998; Rumberger, 1995; Wolman, Bruininks, &
Thurlow, 1989). These statements apply to groups of students on average.
- Age. Students who drop out tend to be older compared to their
- Gender. Students who drop out are more likely to be male. Females
who drop out often do so due to reasons associated with pregnancy.
- Socioeconomic background. Dropouts are more likely to come from
- Ethnicity. The rate of dropout is higher on average for Black,
Hispanic, and Native American youth.
- Native language. Students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds
are more likely to have higher rates of dropout.
- Region. Students are more likely to drop out if they live in urban
settings as compared to suburban or nonmetropolitan areas. Dropout rates are
higher in the South and West than in the Northeast region of the U.S.
- Mobility. High levels of household mobility contribute to increased
likelihood of dropping out.
- Ability. Lower scores on measures of cognitive ability are associated
with higher rates of dropout.
- Disability. Students with disabilities (especially those with
emotional/behavioral disabilities) are at greater risk of dropout.
- Parental employment. Dropouts are more likely to come from families
in which the parents are unemployed.
- School size and type. School factors that have been linked to
dropout include school type and large school size.
- Family structure. Students who come from single-parent families
are at greater risk of dropout.
Overview of Alterable Variables Associated with Dropout
(Macmillan, 1991; Rosenthal, 1998; Rumberger, 1995; Wolman et al., 1989). These
statements apply to groups of students on average.
- Grades. Students with poor grades are at greater risk of dropout.
- Disruptive behavior. Students who drop out are more likely to
have exhibited behavioral and disciplinary problems in school.
- Absenteeism. Rate of attendance is a strong predictor of dropout.
- School policies. Alterable school policies associated with dropout
include raising academic standards without providing supports, tracking, and
frequent use of suspension.
- School climate. Positive school climate is associated with lower
rates of dropout.
- Parenting. Homes characterized by permissive parenting styles
have been linked with higher rates of dropout.
- Sense of belonging. Alienation and decreased levels of participation
in school have been associated with increased likelihood of dropout.
- Attitudes toward school. The beliefs and attitudes (e.g., locus
of control, motivation to achieve) that students hold toward school are important
predictors of dropout.
- Educational support in the home. Students whose families provide
higher levels of educational support for learning are less likely to drop
- Retention. Students who drop out are more likely to have been retained
than students who graduate. Using National Education Longitudinal Study data,
being held back was identified as the single biggest predictor of dropping
- Stressful life events. Increased levels of stress and the presence
of stressors (e.g., financial difficulty, health problems, early parenthood)
are associated with increased rates of dropout.
Predictors and Factors Associated with Dropout for Students with Disabilities
The number of research studies examining correlates and predictors of dropout
for students with disabilities is much smaller than the number examining dropout
for the general school population. However, the research that has been conducted
points to status variables associated with dropout that are similar for both
groups of students. Status variables associated with greater likelihood of dropout
for students with disabilities on average include low SES, non-English speaking,
or Hispanic home background (Wagner et al., 1991). Additionally, students with
emotional/behavioral disorders who drop out tend to be older and are more likely
to have parents who are unemployed and have less education (Lehr, 1996).
Alterable variables associated with dropout have also been identified
for students with disabilities, and many are similar to findings for students
without disabilities. Alterable variables associated with increased risk of
dropout include high rates of absenteeism and tardiness (Zigmond & Thornton,
1985), low grades and a history of course failure (Thompson-Hoffman & Hayward,
1990), limited parental support, low participation in extracurricular activities,
alcohol or drug problems (Jay & Padilla, 1987), and negative attitudes toward
school (MacMillan, 1991). High levels of school mobility (Sinclair et al., 1994)
and retention in grade are also associated with dropout for students with disabilities.
One study found that 90% of students with learning disabilities who repeated
a grade dropped out (Zigmond & Thornton, 1985).
The level of services received (e.g., amount of time designated for special
education service), the way services are delivered (e.g., pull-out or mainstream)
and the kinds of services being provided (e.g., counseling, vocational guidance)
have also been studied and associated with dropout for students with disabilities
(Wagner, 1995). Students with emotional/behavioral disorders were less likely
to drop out if they spent more time being mainstreamed, received tutoring services,
and were in schools that maintained high expectations of special education students.
Lower rates of dropout are also associated with receipt of instruction emphasizing
independent-living skills and training for competitive employment (Bruininks,
Thurlow, Lewis, & Larson, 1988). In addition, high numbers of school transfers
(mobility) and frequent changes in the level of services received have been
associated with increased likelihood of dropout (Edgar, 1987; Wagner, 1995).
Implications for Designing Interventions
Despite the extensive list of variables and predictors associated with dropout,
none is a reliable predictor of whether a particular student will leave school
early. However, the presence of multiple risk factors does increase the risk
of dropout. The challenge lies in using this information to help those students
who are most in need of intervention based on efficient and accurate predictors.
In a review of 41 interventions, over half based participant selection on two
or more criteria associated with dropout (Lehr et al., 2003). The most common
referral criterion for eligible participants was history of academic performance,
followed by attendance. Referral criteria relying on a small number of predictors
is likely to lead to underidentification of students placed at risk of dropping
out, and overidentification of other students on track to graduate (Dynarski
& Gleason, 2002). Targeting students who are most likely to drop out for
intervention is complex. In fact, analysis shows
[t]he majority of dropouts are not those who seem to be most at risk.
That is, although the dropout rate for Blacks is 50 percent higher than for
Whites, and twice as high for Hispanics, 66 percent of the actual dropouts
are White, while just 17 percent are Black and 13 percent are Hispanic. Moreover,
most dropouts are not from broken homes, not poor, and not pregnant. Consequently,
if our graduation rate is to climb to 90 percent, it will have to be achieved
by putting greater emphasis on retaining students whose background and behavior
are not generally thought of as the defining characteristics of students who
drop out. (U.S. Department of Education, 2000, p. 1; as cited in Schargel
& Smink, 2001)
Recognizing the difference between variables that educators and others can
influence and those that are relatively static is important when designing and
implementing interventions to enhance school completion for students with and
without disabilities. It makes sense to develop strategies for reducing dropout
based on information about alterable variables linked to increased rates of
school completion. Promising strategies include targeting dropout-prone students
before high school, providing additional support (e.g., guidance, counseling),
tutoring, and monitoring indicators of risk to guide intervention. School-related
factors positively associated with school performance and completion rates include
(a) providing direct, individualized tutoring and support to complete homework
assignments, attend class, and stay focused on school; (b) participation in
vocational education classes; and (c) participation in community-based work
experience programs (Wagner, Blackorby, & Hebbeler, 1993). Factors that
are related to better outcomes for students with emotional/behavioral disorders
include permitting flexibility in course selection (e.g., offering vocational
courses), supporting social integration (e.g., participation in school-affiliated
groups), and collaborating with mental health agencies to meet the needs of
students (Wagner, 1995).
Reasons for Dropping Out and for Staying in School
Many researchers have used surveys and interviews to gather information about
why students drop out of school. These studies typically identify reasons students
give for leaving school; these reasons have been characterized as “push”
effects and “pull” effects (Jordan, McPartland, & Lara, 1999).
Push effects include situations or experiences within the school environment
that intensify feelings of alienation, failure, and the desire to drop out.
Pull effects include factors that are external to the school environment that
divert students from the path leading towards school completion. Reasons for
leaving school that have been identified in the literature include problems
getting along with teachers, suspension and expulsion, low grades, pregnancy,
financial responsibilities, disliking school, caretaking responsibilities, and
employment. Students most often cite push factors as reasons for dropping out
of school. The decision to drop out most often involves multiple factors (Kortering
& Braziel, 1999).
Fewer studies have been conducted on students’ reasons for staying in
school. However, the following list has been developed based on a synthesis
of information from a variety of studies (Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, &
- Supportive, nurturing family and home environment
- Interaction with and the involvement of committed, concerned educators
and other adults
- Development of perseverance and optimism
- Improved attitude toward school and increased motivation to obtain a diploma
- Positive, respectful relationships between staff and students
- Satisfaction with the learning experience (e.g., social climate, instructional
climate, school course offerings, and school rules)
- Relevance of curriculum
- Fair discipline policies
For Students with Disabilities
Information from interviews with students with disabilities who have dropped
out can be used to increase the holding power of schools. When asked, students
with disabilities indicated a desire for instruction in a challenging and relevant
curriculum to prepare them for life after school. Lack of a relevant high school
curriculum appears repeatedly as a main reason given by students with and without
disabilities for dropping out of school or pursuing alternative education services
(Guterman, 1995; Lichtenstein, 1993). In addition, student comments from individual
interviews suggest factors that might facilitate staying in school. These include
changes in personal attitude or effort, changes in attendance and discipline
policies, and more support from teachers (Kortering & Braziel, 1999). Recommendations
based on student perspectives with respect to keeping students in school included
increased positive attitudes toward students from teachers and administrators
and improvements in curriculum and instruction (e.g., additional assistance,
better teaching, more interesting classes, better textbooks). Students also
indicated that their own attitudes play an important role in the decision to
remain in school or exit early.
1.19MB, 84 pages
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.
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