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What Do We Know About Who Drops Out and Why?

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET)
Students decide to drop out for many reasons. This overview classifies the reasons as either status (e.g., age, socioeconomic status, geographic region or mobility) or alterable (e.g., grades, disruptive behaviors, school climate, attitude toward school). Recognizing the difference between variables is critical to designing effective interventions.

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Who drops out of school?

Many studies have identified predictors and variables associated with dropping out. 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 school completion.

Overview of status variables associated with dropping out

These statements apply to groups of students on average.

  • 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 reasons associated with pregnancy.
  • Socioeconomic background. Dropouts are more likely to come from low-income families.
  • 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.

(Macmillan, 1991; Rosenthal, 1998; Rumberger, 1995; Wolman, Bruininks, & Thurlow, 1989).

Overview of alterable variables associated with dropping out

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 out.
  • 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 out.
  • 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, 1995; Wolman et al., 1989).

Predictors and factors associated with dropping out 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 under-identification of students placed at risk of dropping out, and over-identification 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, care-taking 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, & Hurley, 2000).

  • 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.

Excerpted from Lehr, C.A., Johnson, D.R., Bremer, C.D., Cosio, A., and Thompson, M. (2004). Increasing Rates of School Completion: Moving From Policy and Research to Practice. Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.