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Study Challenges Linking Dropouts, Early Problems

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Students who have a tough time making the transition from elementary school to middle school, or from middle school to high school, may be at greater risk of dropping out than students who perform poorly in elementary school, the results of a new study suggest.

"The results of this study challenge the conventional belief that dropouts are youth who can be distinguished early on in their school careers by their poor grades and lack of attendance,'' writes Melissa Roderick, an assistant professor of el14lsocial-service administration at the University of Chicago, in a paper that has been submitted for publication to the American Journal of Education.

The report is based on a study of 757 students who composed the 7th-grade class of 1980-81 in Fall River, Mass. About 35 percent of this group eventually dropped out, 38 percent graduated, and 22 percent transferred out of the system. Conclusive data could not be collected on about 5 percent of the cohort.

Unlike most studies of dropouts, the author followed the individual academic performance of these students from the 4th grade through the 12th grade. For most dropouts, she found, academic performance in the 4th grade was not a good indicator of whether they were going to drop out.

Students who dropped out before they even reached senior high school, or about 35 percent of all the dropouts in the study, did have poorer academic records in elementary school than did students who were graduation bound.

But students who dropped out after the end of 9th grade, she found, had academic records that were virtually identical to those of students who eventually graduated in the lower third of their class.

For all dropouts, attendance began to decline in the 6th grade, she found.

For the older dropouts, Ms. Roderick writes, the transitions between elementary school and middle school, and then between middle school and high school, were especially difficult.

On average, she found, students of all academic abilities had slightly lower grades the year following each transition. But students who eventually became high-school dropouts saw their grades, as well as attendance records, plummet even more significantly during these transition years, the study found.

"Late-grade dropouts, on average, did not recover from losses incurred during the first year of middle school and high school,'' Ms. Roderick writes. "Thus, the academic difficulty experienced by dropouts during normative school transitions translated into permanent shifts in their academic status.''--E.F.

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