College & Workforce Readiness

Emotionally Disturbed Students at Greatest Risk of Dropping Out, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 26, 2014 2 min read
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In general, students with disabilities face more of an uphill struggle to finish high school, but emotionally disturbed students are the most likely to drop out, finds a new study by the Regional Educational Laboratory West.

“In the literature, the reasons for dropping out are often assumed to be similar for students with disabilities and general education students, but the specific reasons for dropping out need further investigation by disability category,” argued Vanessa Barrat, a senior research associate, and other authors in the study.

Researchers analyzed longitudinal education records for more than 41,000 Utah students in the four-year class of 2011 graduation cohort, including more than 4,000 identified for one of 13 federal disability categories. They also compared this data to an analysis of more than 250,000 general education and 35,000 students with disabilities in grades 6 through 12 statewide in the 2010-11 school year. Nearly 12 percent of Utah students in grades 6-12 in 2011 were identified as eligible for special education in the state.

After four years, researchers found students with emotional problems were the worst off of any group of students with disabilities. They were more likely to change schools or even transfer out of state, and every year, they dropped out of school twice as often as students with other types of disabilities and three times as often as students in general education.

By contrast, students with autism, multiple disabilities, or intellectual disability were among those most likely to not complete high school in four years, but they had lower dropout rates than general education students, suggesting supports for students with these disabilities may enable them to persevere longer in school.

And at the other end of the spectrum, students with hearing and speech disabilities were the most likely to graduate, finishing school in four years at about the same rates as students without disabilities.

Why are students with emotional disturbances more at risk than those with other disabilities? By definition, these students have learning problems that can’t be easily explained; they act and feel inappropriately and have difficulty building and maintain relationships with peers and teachers; they are generally unhappy or depressed and often have physical symptoms related to their anxiety or depression. All of those factors are likely to make it more difficult for students to seek and find support.

These findings are particularly concerning since black and Latino students have been found to be at risk of being over-identified for emotional disabilities.

Interestingly, Utah has lower overall rates of emotionally disturbed students ages 11 to 21 than the nation as a whole, 4.9 percent compared to 8.1 percent nationwide.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.