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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 youth.
  • Native language. Students who come from non-English speaking backgrounds are more likely to drop out.
  • 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 out.
  • 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 are unemployed.
  • 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 instructional practices.
  • 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. 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 al., 1989).

What factors are associated with dropout risk for students with disabilities?

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 (Lehr, 1996).

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 of mobility 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, & 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 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 relations class;
  • 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; and
  • 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 activities.
  • 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 & Hale, 2001).



  • Balfanz, R., Fox, J. H., Bridgeland, J. M., & McNaught, M. (2009). Grad nation: A guidebook to help communities tackle the dropout crisis. Washington, DC: America’s Promise Alliance. Retrieved from
  • Bruininks, R. H., Thurlow, M. L., Lewis, D. L., & Larson, S. (1988). Post-school outcomes for students in special education and other students one to eight years after high school. In R. H. Bruininks, D. R. Lewis, & M. L. Thurlow (Eds.), Assessing outcomes, costs, and benefits of special education programs (Project Report No. 88-1, pp. 9-111). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, University Affiliated Program.
  • Christenson, S. L. (2002, November). Families, educators, and the family-school partnership: Issues or opportunities for promoting children’s learning competence? Paper prepared for "The Future of School Psychology Continues" conference, Indianapolis, IN.
  • Christenson, S. L., Sinclair, M. F., Lehr, C. A., & Hurley, C. M. (2000). Promoting successful school completion. In K. M. Minke & G. C. Bear (Eds.), Preventing school problems—Promoting school success: Strategies and programs that work (pp. 211-257). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.
  • Dynarski, M., Clarke, L., Cobb, B., Finn, J., Rumberger, R., & Smink, J. (2008). Dropout prevention: A practice guide (NCEE 2008-4025). Washington, DC: National Center Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
  • Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74(1), 59-109.
  • Guterman, B. R. (1995). The validity of categorical learning disabilities services: The consumer's view. Exceptional Children, 62, 111-124.
  • Hess, R. S., & Copeland, E. P. (2001). Students’ stress, coping strategies, and school completion: A longitudinal perspective. School Psychology Quarterly, 16(4), 389-405.
  • Kortering, L. J., & Braziel, P. M. (1999). Staying in school: The perspective of ninth-grade students. Remedial and Special Education, 20(2), 106-113.
  • Lehr, C. A. (1996). Students with emotional behavioral disorders: Predictors and factors associated with dropout and school completion. Unpublished paper. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.
  • Lehr, C. A., Hansen, A., Sinclair, M. F., & Christenson, S. L. (2003). Moving beyond dropout prevention to school completion: An integrative review of data-based interventions. School Psychology Review 32(3), 342-364.
  • MacMillan, D. L. (1991). Hidden youth: Dropouts from special education. Reston, VA: The Council for Exceptional Children.
  • Rosenthal, B. S. (1998). Nonschool correlates of dropout: An integrative review of the literature. Children & Youth Services Review, 20(5), 413-433.
  • Rumberger, R. W. (2008). Solving California's dropout crisis. (Report of the California Dropout Research Project Policy Committee.) Santa Barbara, CA: University of California, Santa Barbara; California Dropout Research Project. Retrieved from
  • Stillwell, R., Sable, J., & Plotts, C. (May, 2011). Public school graduates and dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School year 2008-09. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from
  • U.S. Department of Labor (2003). So you're thinking of dropping out of school. Retrieved from
  • Velez, W., & Saenz, R. (2001). Toward a comprehensive model of the school leaving process among Latinos. School Psychology Quarterly, 16(4), 445-467.
  • Wagner, M. (1995). Outcomes for youths with serious emotional disturbance in secondary school and early adulthood. Critical Issues for Children and Youth, 5(2), 90-112.
  • Wagner, M., Newman, L., D’Amico, R., Jay, E. D., Butler-Nalin, P., Marder, C., et al. (1991). Youth with disabilities: How are they doing? The first comprehensive report from the national longitudinal transition study of special education students. (SRI International Contract 300-87-0054). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
  • Wolman, C., Bruininks, R. H., & Thurlow, M. L. (1989). Dropouts and dropout programs: Implications for special education. Remedial and Special Education, 10(5), 6-20.
  • Worrell, F. C., & Hale, R. L. (2001). The relationship of hope in the future and perceived school climate to school completion. School Psychology Quarterly, 16(4), 357-369.

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