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Dropped Out Or Pushed Out?

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Most of what is known about gifted dropouts is purely anecdotal. But if the observations of LeCompte and others are any indication, there may be more dropouts among students of high ability than most people assume. According to LeCompte's survey of students who dropped out of the Houston schools during the 1983-84 school year, 25 percent had test scores above the 75th percentile and fully 10 percent scored in the 90th percentile and above.

Clearly, not all children in the 75th percentile range are gifted, but, says LeCompte, many undoubtedly are high-ability students. "They certainly aren't remedial,'' she says. "They're above average.''

Houston, of course, is a large, culturally diverse urban district. But the trend, if it truly is one, seems to cut across demographic lines.

For example, a team of researchers at Texas A&M University recently examined dropout rates in six suburban school districts, where the majority of students--and most of the dropouts--are white. A surprising 29 percent of students in regular and honors programs--students not considered at risk--dropped out during the 1988-89 school year. Although honors students, on average, constituted one of the smallest groups of dropouts, in one school district--College Station-- 8.5 percent of all dropouts were in the honors program.

The phenomenon also has been observed far north of Texas in Chicago, where one out of every five high-ability students leaves school before graduation.

Why? According to John Easton, director of monitoring and research for the Chicago Panel on School Policy and Finance, there are several reasons, including, not surprisingly, boredom. "The schools just aren't very good,'' he says. Additionally, many bright and talented minority students feel pressured by their peers to drop out. "The culture is anti-achievement, antisuccess,'' he says.

And sometimes, says LeCompte, now associate professor of psychology and education at the University of Colorado, high-ability students become victims of school policy, like the pregnant teen.

"One student at our performing arts magnet school had taken first-year algebra and flunked,'' recalls LeCompte, coauthor, with A. Gary Dworkin, of the forthcoming book Giving Up in School. Under a Texas school law that requires students to pass all their subjects or forfeit extracurricular activities, including studying art in a magnet school, the boy was forced out of the special program. "He could have been allowed to enroll in consumer math, and easily passed,'' she says, "but they wouldn't let him do that. So he dropped out.''

In this case at least, LeCompte says, there is a happy ending: "He got his high school equivalency, and now he's in college, enrolled in a fine-arts program.''

J.M.

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