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The First Step: Some States' Working Definitions of Students 'At Risk'

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Three out of four states have either adopted or are preparing a definition for the segment of their student population deemed at risk for school failure, an Education Week survey of all 50 state education departments indicates.

Interviews with department officials in August found that 25 states had already developed a formal definition of at-risk students. Four states were in the process of creating such a definition, nine reported having an informal or "working" definition, and 12 had none.

Officials reported that the definitions had been developed in a wide variety of contexts, including state-board and department policy statements, commission and task-force reports, and preambles to legislation.

The definitions vary widely, ranging from students who are simply likely to drop out to those affected by what some officials described as a "laundry list" of adverse social and economic conditions.

The following are examples of several state definitions:

California. The 1985 School-Based Pupil Motivation and Maintenance Program and Dropout Recovery Act defines risk" students as those4who exhibit the following characteristics: "absenteeism, truancy, frequent tardiness, poor grades, low math and reading scores, failure in one or more grades, limited extracurricular participation, lack of identification with school, failure to see the relevance of education to life experience, boredom with school, disruptive behavior and rebellious attitudes towards authority, verbal and language deficiencies, and inability to tolerate structured activities."

Connecticut. A policy statement adopted by the state board in 1987 includes this definition: "Students in grades K-12 who are at risk of academic failure and dropping out of school."

An interagency working group on at-risk youths is considering a broader definition, officials said.

Its draft statement defines the at-risk population as "young people through age 21 who may not earn a high-school diploma and graduate with adequate academic and social competencies and attributes which prepare them to pursue additional educational experiences; become successfully employed; and/or make a successful transition to adulthood and become productive members of society."

"Consistent with Connecticut's children and family policy," the draft continues, "the working group assumes children are placed at risk because of economic, environmental, and social conditions."

Iowa. A measure approved by the legislature in 1987 requires that school districts "have a program to identify and provide special assistance to students who have difficulty mastering the language, academic, cultural, and social skills necessary to reach the educational levels of which they are capable."

Students to be served include those "whose aspirations and achievement may be negatively affected by stereotypes linked to race, national origin, language background, gender, income, family status, parental status, and disability."

Kansas. In its fiscal 1988 budget request to the governor, the state education department said at-risk students were "dropouts and pupils who have an excessive rate of unexcused absences, one parent, have been adjudicated delinquent, are two or more credits behind their age group in the numbers of graduation credits attained, have been retained one or more grades, or have failed to meet the standards on one or more of the Kansas Minimun Competency Tests."

Minnesota. An education-department policy statement says that "issues or circumstances ... may put some individuals at risk in the learning process or ... may cause barriers to their successful completion of an

Such students, it says, may "fall behind their classmates, be truant, behave disruptively, face suspension or expulsion, drop out before completing high-school, or face other barriers to learning."

"Most learners are at risk at some time," the statement adds, "whether briefly or for a long "Have not been promoted one or more times in grades 1-6 and continue to be unable to master the essential elements in the 7th or higher grade level";

"Are two or more years below grade level in reading or mathematics";

"Have failed at least two courses in one or more semesters and are not expected to graduate within four years of the time they entered the 9th grade"; or

"Have failed one or more of the reading, writing, or mathematics sections of the most recent Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills test beginning with the 7th grade."

"In addition to the criteria outlined above," the regulations continue, "the district may consider environmental, familial, economic, social, developmental, and other psycho-social factors in determining services where such factors contribute to a student's inability to progress academically."--tm

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