Frequently Asked Questions
How serious is the dropout problem?
Dropping out of school is one of the most serious and pervasive problems facing public education programs nationally (Balfanz, Fox, Bridgeland, & McNaught, 2009; Lehr, Hanson, Sinclair, & Christenson, 2003). Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that 607,789 students did not graduate from high school with their class in 2008-09 (Stillwell, Sable, & Plotts, 2011). In 2007-08, the dropout rate for special education students was 14%. Students who leave school before graduation are more likely to become unemployed, incarcerated, and/or dependent on social programs than those with a high school diploma. Society pays the price for truancy as well; youth who drop out of school ultimately cost taxpayers billions in lost revenue, welfare, unemployment, crime prevention, and prosecution (Dynarski et al., 2008).
What risks do dropouts face?
In today’s society there are few employment opportunities that pay living wages and provide 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 72% more likely to be unemployed as compared to high school graduates (U.S. Department of Labor, 2003). 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 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).
How are dropout rates measured?
Various formulas have been used to calculate dropout rates with three kinds of dropout statistics generally used: event or annual rates, status rates, and cohort rates. Each has a different definition and produces different rates, resulting in a slightly different picture of the dropout problem.
- The event or annual rate measures the proportion of students who drop out in a single year without completing high school. This measure yields the lowest estimate of the dropout rate.
- The status rate measures the proportion of students who have not completed high school and are not enrolled at a single point in time, regardless of when they dropped out.
- The cohort rate measures what happens to a single group (or cohort) of students over a period of time. This measure yields the highest estimate of the dropout rate.
Since 2008, the U.S. Department of Education has required that all states use the same definition to calculate graduation rates, by dividing the number of students who earned a regular diploma through the summer four years after a specific year by the adjusted cohort for a graduating class. The adjusted cohort is defined as first-time ninth graders in a specific year plus transfers into the cohort, minus cohort members who transferred out, emigrated, or died.
Which students are most likely to drop out of school?
Many studies have identified predictors and variables associated
with dropout. These variables can be categorized
according to how much they can be influenced. Status variables are
difficult and unlikely to change (e.g., socioeconomic status [SES],
academic ability, family structure). On the other hand, alterable
variables (e.g., attendance, identification with school) are those
that are easier to change and have become the focus of efforts to
improve graduation rates.
Status Variables Associated With Dropout Risk
- Age. Students who drop out tend to
be older compared to their grade-level peers.
- Gender. Students who drop out are
more likely to be male. Females who drop out often do so due to
factors associated with pregnancy.
- Socioeconomic status. Students who
drop out are more likely to come from low SES.
- Ethnicity. The rate of dropout is
higher on average for African-American, Hispanic, and Native-American
- Native language. Students who come
from non-English speaking backgrounds are more likely to drop
- Region. Students are more likely
to drop out if they live in urban settings as compared to suburban
or non-metropolitan areas. Dropout rates are higher in the South
and West than in the Northeast region of the United States.
- 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 dropping
- Disability. Students with disabilities
(especially those with emotional/behavioral disabilities) are
at greater risk of dropping out.
- Parental employment. Students who
drop out are more likely to come from families in which the parents
- School size and type. School factors
that have been linked to dropout include large school size and
type (e.g., public vs. private).
- Family structure. Students who come
from single parent families are at greater risk of dropout.
(Fredericks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; MacMillan, 1991; Rosenthal, 1998; Rumberger, 2008; Wolman, Bruininks,
& Thurlow, 1989).
Alterable Variables Associated With Dropout Risk
- Grades. Students with poor grades
are at greater risk of dropout.
- Disruptive behavior. Students who
drop out are more likely to have exhibited behavior 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 supports, tracking, frequent use of suspension, and various
- 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
- 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. The
extent to which students receive educational support for learning
in the home is associated with dropout.
- Retention. Students who drop out are
more likely to have been retained than students who graduate.
In the National Educational Longitudinal Survey of 1988, being
held back was identified as the single biggest predictor of dropout.
- 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.
(MacMillan, 1991; Rosenthal, 1998; Rumberger, 2008; Wolman et
What factors are associated with dropout risk for students with
There are fewer research studies examining correlates and predictors
of dropout for students with disabilities than those 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 a 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, have parents who have been unemployed, and have less education
Alterable variables associated with dropout have also
been identified for students with disabilities, and many are similar
to those identified for students without disabilities. Alterable
variables associated with increased risk of dropout include high
rates of absenteeism and tardiness;
low grades and a history of course failure; limited parental support, low participation in extracurricular
activities, alcohol or drug problems;
and negative attitudes toward school. High levels
and retention (being “held back”) are also associated
with dropout for students with disabilities.
The level of services received (e.g., amount of time designated
for special education services), 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 associated with dropout risk for students with disabilities (Wagner,
1995). Students with emotional/behavioral disorders were less likely
to drop out if they spent more time in regular classrooms, 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 (Wagner, 1995).
Why do many at-risk students choose to stay in school?
Few studies have been conducted on students’ reasons for
staying in school. However, the following list has been developed
based on 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 and
instructional climate, school course offerings, and school rules);
- Relevance of curricula; and
- Fair discipline policies.
When asked, students with disabilities indicate a desire for instruction
in a challenging and relevant curriculum to prepare them for life
after school. The lack of a relevant high school curriculum appears
repeatedly as a primary reason given by students with and without
disabilities for dropping out of school or pursuing alternative
education services (Guterman, 1995). In addition,
comments from individual student interviews suggest that changes
in personal attitude or effort, changes in attendance and discipline
policies, and more support from teachers might facilitate staying
in school (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 school early.
What types of intervention programs are effective?
Programs that have been designed to prevent dropout vary widely.
In a literature review of effective interventions designed to address
dropout, Lehr et al. (2003) categorized
successful interventions as follows:
- Personal/affective: e.g., retreats
designed to enhance self-esteem, regularly scheduled classroom-based
discussion, individual counseling, participation in an interpersonal
- Academic: e.g., provision of special
academic courses, individualized methods of instruction, tutoring;
- Family outreach: e.g., strategies
that utilized increased feedback to parents or home visits;
- School structure: e.g., implementation
of school-within-a-school, redefinition of the role of the homeroom
teacher, reducing class size, creation of an alternative school;
- Work-related: e.g., vocational training,
participation in volunteer or service programs.
What is the role of student engagement in persistence and graduation?
The most effective interventions to reduce the dropout rate and
enhance school completion address core issues associated with student
alienation and disengagement from school. Helpful interventions
address underlying problems and teach students strategies and skills
they can use to successfully meet the academic, behavioral, and
psychological demands of the school environment.
Christenson (2002) defines engagement as a multi-dimensional construct
involving four types of engagement and associated indicators:
- Academic engagement refers to time
on task, academically engaged time, or credit accrual.
- Behavioral engagement includes attendance,
suspension, classroom participation, and involvement in extracurricular
- Cognitive engagement involves internal
indicators including processing academic information or becoming
a self-regulated learner.
- Psychological engagement includes
identification with school or a sense of belonging.
Indicators of engagement are influenced by context. For example,
school policies and practices such as a positive climate or the
quality of a teacher-student relationship can affect the degree
to which a student is engaged in school. Similarly, when parents
or family members provide academic or motivational support for learning,
students’ connection with school is enhanced, and successful
school performance is more likely. Enhancing the factors that promote
school engagement is a promising approach to promoting school completion.
Recent studies have highlighted the complex interplay between student,
family, school, and community variables in shaping students’
paths toward early school withdrawal or successful school completion
(Hess & Copeland, 2001; Velez & Saenz, 2001; Worrell &
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