School & District Management

On the Way Out

By Debra Viadero — August 12, 2006 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
The strongest hints that a student won't finish school aren't visible in the classroom.

By the end of their first semester in high school, two 9th grade students have similar test scores and identical grades—mostly C’s, a couple of D’s, and an F. A year later, though, the difference in these two students could not be starker: One is still in school. The other has dropped out.

What happened?

Teachers are trained to watch for warning signs that their students may be at risk for dropping out. But according to studies on dropouts, factors not visible in the classroom can be the biggest predictors of whether an otherwise normal student is headed for an irrecoverable academic tailspin.

The Price of Not Graduating

$260,000

Estimated difference in lifetime income between a high school dropout and a graduate.

SOURCE: The nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education, using a report by Princeton University researcher Cecilia Rouse

Poor grades and test scores are red flags, to be sure, but as indicators of students’ dropout risk, they’re far from infallible. In a recent survey paid for by the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 88 percent of dropouts interviewed said they were earning passing grades when they left school. Seventy percent were confident that they could have graduated had circumstances been different.

The more important telltales, experts say, are submerged beneath the surface. A study by Russell Rumberger, director of the University of California Minority Research Institute in Santa Barbara, suggests that repeating a grade—even as far back as elementary school—makes a student four times as likely to drop out than a classmate who was never held back.

Who's Not Getting a Diploma

Racial and ethnic groups as percentages of high school nongraduates

Who's Not Getting a Diploma

SOURCE: EPE Research Center 2006

“[J]ust being old for grade seems to matter,” concurs Elaine Allensworth, the associate director for statistical analysis at the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research. “By first semester freshman year, we can really predict who’s going to drop out later on.”

Previous school changes and a history of behavior problems can also add to the cumulative likelihood that a student won’t graduate. Rumberger’s study suggests that students who change schools two times during high school are twice as likely not to graduate as their peers whose enrollment is more stable. A disrupted school career, Rumberger reasons, may signal more serious issues, such as behavior problems or a chaotic home life.

But Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander says repeating a grade “trumps everything else” when it comes to dropout risk factors.

“For many youngsters, these difficulties appear early in the game,” notes Alexander, who has been tracking, with fellow Hopkins sociologist Doris Entwisle, 790 students who started 1st grade in inner-city Baltimore public schools in 1982. In the 11 years that followed, the researchers noticed a strong link develop between repeating a grade and dropping out. Sixty-four percent of the students who had repeated a grade in elementary school eventually wound up leaving school without a diploma. By middle school, the proportion had reached 89 percent.

Targeting both problem schools and the students most likely to drop out, according to Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins, the United States could cut its dropout rate by as much as a quarter.

“If we could figure out how to address them early,” Alexander says, “they’d be a lot better off and so would we.”

Related Tags:

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion 5 Reasons Why Education Leaders Avoid Controversial Topics
Understanding why we shy away from challenging conversations can be a path toward empathy and an opportunity for learning.
4 min read
Let's brainstorm!
Created on Canva
School & District Management Most Superintendents Try to Avoid Politics. This Group Encourages Them to Lean In
Superintendents increasingly face politically tricky situations. A new collaborative hopes to support them.
3 min read
Illustration of person riding a unicycle on a tightrope over shark infested waters.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
School & District Management Superintendent of the Year Focuses on How to ‘Do More’ in Minnesota
The 2024 winner of the national honor didn't want to spend pandemic relief funds "in the way that we’ve always spent our money."
2 min read
Joe Gothard, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools stands for a portrait at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 21, 2021, where new federal school funding will help to hire staff, buy books and be used for building renovations.
Joe Gothard, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools stands for a portrait at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minn., on Aug. 21, 2021. Gothard was named the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year on Thursday by AASA, The School Superintendents' Association.
Andy Clayton-King/AP
School & District Management The Average U.S. School Building Dates Back to the End of the Vietnam War
New federal data highlight widely varying ages and offerings in school buildings nationwide.
4 min read
School Renovation in Washington Heights, Chicago
E+ / Getty