College & Workforce Readiness

Dropout Studies Target ‘Pockets of Problems’

By Robert C. Johnston — January 24, 2001 5 min read
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A decade after state and federal leaders made lowering dropout rates a national goal, it appears that little progress has been made, a series of new reports suggests.

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NOTE: The 14 studies are available online at

The problem is most severe in 34 cities, where nearly half the schools graduate fewer than 50 percent of 9th graders by the end of 12th grade, one study found.

Researchers also contend that federal and state dropout data underestimate the number of students who drop out and overestimate the number who earn high school diplomas each year, especially minority students.

“The data suggests that overall national rates mask pockets of real problems, especially in urban areas,” said Phillip D. Kaufman, a researcher at MPR Associates, a consulting firm in Berkeley, Calif., who wrote one of the reports. “Locally, there just aren’t the resources to track the numbers.”

According to one estimate, the national dropout rate between the 10th and 12th grades is 11.5 percent for whites, 18.3 percent for blacks, and 21.6 percent for Hispanics.

On a brighter note, the research released Jan. 13 at a conference at Harvard University found that smaller schools, individualized attention, and strong academic intervention—particularly in the 9th grade—appear to improve the odds that students will finish high school.

The reports were commissioned by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard and Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group founded by governors and business leaders to encourage school improvement.

The partnership is noteworthy because the groups have often been at odds over current school reform strategies. The Civil Rights Project’s researchers are concerned that a wave of high-stakes tests has led more students, particularly minority students, to flunk a grade and to quit school. Achieve, however, sees such assessments as crucial to states’ improvement efforts.

‘Dropout Factories’

“We agreed to disagree on this point,” said Gary Orfield, a co-director of the Civil Rights Project. Still, the effort will aid future work on the issue, he added.

“We agreed to tell the nation there are facts independent of ideology that we need to focus on, and interventions we can look at and scale up,” Mr. Orfield said.

National education goals adopted in the 1990s included the aim of reducing the nation’s dropout rate by 2000. The recent reports, however, may sharpen debate on whether U.S. schools are losing ground in that effort.

The dropout problem is “most desperate” in some 200 to 300 schools in 35 large cities, one report found.

By studying the ratios of students who remained in school from the 9th to the 12th grades in those schools during two four-year cycles, researchers found that between 40 percent and 50 percent of the schools had graduated fewer than half their 9th graders after four years.

The schools with the lowest student-retention rate—a factor the researchers call “promoting power"—generally had more than 900 students and a minority enrollment of 90 percent or more.

Robert Balfanz, an associate research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, said the implications were clear: “The solution is not that we have to fix every urban high school—dropouts are concentrated in these dropout factories.”

Such findings could bolster the arguments of advocates for urban education.

“We’ve said for a long time that if you target resources and energies more carefully, rather than general strategies across communities, you’d be a lot more effective,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based coalition of urban districts.

Mr. Casserly added that he would like to see more research on the link between high-stakes tests and dropouts.

Texas Scrutinized

Two of the 14 reports directly addressed that issue in Texas, though inconclusively.

Walter M. Haney, a professor at Boston College, argued that Texas’ high-stakes tests have led to the retention of more students in 9th grade, making it more likely they will drop out. A basic-skills graduation test in 10th grade is also weeding out students and contributing to an unimpressive 70 percent high school completion rate in Texas, he added. According to state data, the 1999 high school completion rate in Texas was 79.5 percent.

Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University, disagreed with Mr. Haney’s conclusion in a paper he co-wrote. Mr. Carnoy argues that other factors besides the tests, such as tougher coursework, could lead to higher dropout rates.

Experts involved in the studies showed wide agreement that the nation needs a better way to count its dropouts. But even if the data are sound, the statistics can lead to confusion.

Federal data show the high school completion rate for 18- to 24-year-olds was around 84 percent between 1988 and 1998. Meanwhile, the percentage of students finishing high school through alternative means, such as earning a less rigorous General Educational Development certificate, rose from 4 percent in 1988 to 10 percent in 1998. Local dropout statistics tend to be even more confusing.

Mr. Kaufman of MPR Associates cites a high school principal whose school had a 79 percent completion rate and a 2 percent dropout rate. Research found that 388 students who left the school between the 9th and 12 grades went to alternative and private schools, or schools outside the district. Just four of those dropped out.

“While some schools may indeed engage in the shell game that their detractors accuse them of ... many schools just did not know what happened to all of their no-shows,” Mr. Kaufman writes.

Researchers also found that broad dropout-prevention efforts produce few large-scale benefits.

“We do not yet have a menu of program options for helping students at risk of dropping out,” argued Mark Dynarski, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research Inc. in Princeton, N.J.

Strategies and policies that focus on students by grade or at-risk populations are more promising, some of the research suggests.

One study in Philadelphia found that in 1999-2000, 20 percent of first-time freshmen in neighborhood schools received F’s in core courses, and 40 percent passed no more than half their courses.

Students with such troubles are candidates for dropping out, the researchers added. For example, a study of 2,892 Philadelphia students who entered the 9th grade in 1996 found that just 46 percent graduated four years later. And, of the 22 percent who dropped out in that time, two-thirds had failed the 9th grade.

The report suggests that the disorganization that often characterizes the first months of high school, such as schedule changes and teacher rotation, “likely hinders [students’] ability to adjust to new academic expectations even if they continue to attend school on a regular basis.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2001 edition of Education Week as Dropout Studies Target ‘Pockets of Problems’


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