School & District Management

On the Way Out

By Debra Viadero — August 12, 2006 2 min read
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


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:


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.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Educator-Driven EdTech Design: Help Shape the Future of Classroom Technology
Join us for a collaborative workshop where you will get a live demo of GoGuardian Teacher, including seamless new integrations with Google Classroom, and participate in an interactive design exercise building a feature based on
Content provided by GoGuardian
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: What Did We Learn About Schooling Models This Year?
After a year of living with the pandemic, what schooling models might we turn to as we look ahead to improve the student learning experience? Could year-round schooling be one of them? What about online
School & District Management Webinar What's Ahead for Hybrid Learning: Putting Best Practices in Motion
It’s safe to say hybrid learning—a mix of in-person and remote instruction that evolved quickly during the pandemic—is probably here to stay in K-12 education to some extent. That is the case even though increasing

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 The Year of Scourges: How I Survived Illness and Racism to Find My 'Tribe'
A Black school leader reflects on the hardest year of her professional life.
Reba Y. Hodge
4 min read
new growth on a bare tree
Vanessa Solis/Education Week & Getty Images
School & District Management From Our Research Center How the Pandemic Is Shaping K-12 Education (in Charts)
Surveys by the EdWeek Research Center show how schools have changed during the pandemic and what adjustments are likely to stick.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School on Oct. 6, 2020, in Rye, N.Y.
Eric DiVito gives breathing instructions as he teaches a remote music class at the Osborn School in Rye, N.Y., last fall.
Mary Altaffer/AP
School & District Management 'You Can’t Follow CDC Guidelines': What Schools Really Look Like During COVID-19
All year, some teachers have said that enforcing precautions to slow the spread of the virus in classrooms can be nearly impossible.
13 min read
Guntown Middle School eighth graders walk the halls to their next class as others wait in their assigned spots against the wall before moving into their next class during the first day back to school for the Lee County District in Guntown, Miss on Aug. 6, 2020.
Eight graders walk the halls on the first day back to school in Guntown, Miss., on Aug. 6, 2020. Teachers in several states told Education Week that since the beginning of the school year, enforcing precautions such as social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus has been nearly impossible.<br/>
Adam Robison/The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal via AP
School & District Management Opinion School Reopening Requires More Than Just Following the Science
Educators can only “follow the science” so far. Professional expertise matters too, writes Susan Moore Johnson.
Susan Moore Johnson
5 min read
Illustration of school and bus