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.
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.
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.
Racial and ethnic groups as percentages of high school nongraduates
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.”