Getting a Handle on Dropouts

Getting a Handle on Dropouts

Essentials on education data and analysis from research authority AEL

Dropping out of school is a young person's way of "divorcing" the school system. The decision to drop out, like the decision to divorce, doesn't happen in a day. Studies suggest it is the cumulative result of a series of events and circumstances. School, student, family and other non-school factors can come into play. Each student's situation is different, and schools often don't know the details since students are not required to file "divorce papers" before calling it quits.

Even if such paperwork were required, schools would have already missed several critical junctures in the child's academic career--opportunities to keep the student on track for high school graduation. Research has identified several of these "switch points."

Preschool Preschool is not too early to start thinking about graduation, especially for children from low-income families. Several studies have linked high-quality preschool programs to higher graduation rates among low-income children. An important factor is the involvement of parents in helping their children learn. Early involvement that includes direct instruction for parents can empower them with attitudes and skills that may benefit their children for years to come.

K-6 The focus on helping children read well by the end of third grade could help reduce the drop-out rate, if it helps prevent early academic failure. A Baltimore study involving 800 students found that early failure signaled a much greater chance that a child would later drop out (60 percent of those who received D's and F's in the first grade ultimately dropped out, compared to 19 percent of those receiving A's and B's). To sustain any gains, however, many students will require extra support beyond the third grade, such as after-school tutoring and help with homework, especially for those from low-resource and non-English-speaking households.

Middle school Researchers have zeroed in on middle schools as prime-time players in drop-out prevention. Students need personal attention and guidance, which can be fostered by creating smaller and/or alternative learning environments and access to counseling and mentoring from a staff that is caring, committed and competent. Some students may require intensive programs with coordinated services (e.g., tutoring, life skills training). Special attention is needed by eighth graders preparing for the transition to high school. For many, this is perhaps the most critical juncture. According to Jay Greene's calculations, less than 75 percent of all eighth graders graduate from high school in five years (in urban schools, less than 50 percent).

High school More students are held back in the ninth grade than at any other grade level, and the rate at which students "disappear" between ninth and 10th grades has tripled in the past 30 years. How can we retain them? Various methods have been used to identify candidates for drop-out prevention programs, using risk factors such as low achievement, grade retention, frequent absences or tardiness, lack of fluency in English, poverty, family change and pregnancy. But use of established risk factors doesn't necessarily identify appropriate participants. And no programs evaluated in rigorous national studies have been consistently effective in significantly reducing drop-out rates.

They can, however, make a difference. Leaders need to assess the drop-out problem within their own schools and communities, identify practices that seem most effective in similar circumstances and develop an individualized approach.

Beyond high school Students who have already dropped out can benefit from programs that help them get a General Educational Development certificate.

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