For many students, dropping out of high school isn’t the end of the line but a “stop out” along the path to a diploma, new federal and state data suggest.
Of the students who entered high school in 2009, fewer than 3 percent were no longer in school when researchers from the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School Longitudinal Study checked in 2012. But nearly 7 percent of the 2009 freshmen had “stopped out”—left school for four weeks or more at some point in grades 9-11, only to have returned by 2012.
The federal study found that students in the poorest 20 percent of families nationwide were generally more likely than those from other income groups to both stop out or drop out. They were more than twice as likely to stop school briefly, 12.2 percent versus 4.7 percent who left school permanently.
“Dropping out is not a final event. ... There is still a lot we can do besides saying, ‘Oh, they’ve dropped out—it’s over,’ ” said Vanessa Ximenes Barrat, a senior research analyst at the research group WestEd who led a similar new study of dropout and re-engagement rates in Utah. “What this shows is we also need to turn an eye to when those dropouts come back to school.”
Of the 41,000 Utah students who started high school during the 2007-08 school year, nearly 20 percent left school at some point that year, according to a study by researchers from WestEd. More than 40 percent of those students later re-enrolled in their original school or some other school in the state.
The researchers found that the later students “stopped out” of school, the less likely they were to graduate and the more likely they were to become dropouts.
Source: WestEd analysis of Utah State Office of Education data for 2007-08 to 2010-11
The Every Student Succeeds Act did not renew programs in previous iterations of federal education law that were dedicated entirely to high school dropout prevention and re-engagement. But ESSA does require that state plans explain how they will address high dropout rates among migrant, American Indian, and Alaska Native young people, and support or re-engage students from those groups who have left school.
The law also created student-support and academic-enrichment grants, which states and districts can use for dropout prevention and re-engagement, among other purposes, although the grants have not yet been funded.
Building students’ academic expectations for themselves early might help. Nationwide, NCES data showed that, among the leavers, the students who had said in 9th grade that they expected to get a college degree were five times more likely to return after dropping out than to stay out permanently.
“It’s not enough to just look at the last six months to understand why a student dropped out; it’s a cumulative process. When students dropped out, it was really both a conscious choice that you are not coming back, but it is also a gradual process of absenteeism,” Ximenes Barrat said. “Leaving school was the culmination of years of struggling and missing school and not being able to keep up. And then when you re-enroll, it is even more difficult to catch up.”
For example, the national data found that returning students were still more likely than students who had never dropped out to miss school frequently.
In the Utah study, 19 percent of the more than 41,000 students who entered high school in the 2007-08 school year left school at some point. More than 40 percent of those students later re-enrolled in their original school or another public school in the state.
The Utah study’s findings mirrored those at the national level. Students in poverty were at higher risk of leaving school, for example—but they also re-enrolled in school more often than the state average.
Black and Pacific Islander students and those still learning to speak English had both higher rates of leaving school and lower rates of returning than the state average. For English-learners, the problem was particularly stark: 45 percent of English-learners in Utah left school, compared with only 17 percent of students who were proficient in English. After leaving, only 17 percent of those ELLs returned, compared with 22 percent of the English-proficient students who stopped out.
Moreover, the rate of returning students dropped significantly for those who left school in higher grades. Ximenes Barrat found more than 12 percent of dropouts tried to come back to school repeatedly, only to drop out again.
“We see those students passing classes, earning credits—just not enough to graduate,” Ximenes Barrat said. Generally, Utah students who left school repeatedly never accumulated more than 10 to 15 credits—roughly what the on-time graduates had accumulated by their sophomore years.
Ultimately, fewer than 1 in 3 students who returned to school graduated within six years. “Supporting kids when they are back in school is a totally different ballgame than supporting them when they are out,” Ximenes Barrat said. “They are a struggle for the school system as a whole, but they are here and giving themselves a second chance, so there is an opportunity to support them.”