Study Links Dropout Rate With Course Requirements

By Lynn Olson — March 29, 2000 3 min read

Increasing the number of course credits high school students are required to take raises the dropout rate between 3 percent and 7 percent a year, according to a report by economists at Cornell University and the University of Michigan.

The researchers estimate that the higher attrition rates could mean an additional 65,000 high school dropouts annually, potentially resulting in poorer job prospects and lower lifetime earnings for those students.

The findings raise a cautionary flag for states moving to raise standards for high school graduation. Since the early 1980s, a majority of states have increased the number of academic credits required to graduate from high school. By 2003, 26 states also will have tests that students must pass to receive a diploma.

“The jury is still out” on whether the increase in dropout rates is significant enough to prompt states to reconsider higher standards, said Dean R. Lillard, one of the study’s authors, who is an economist and research associate in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell.

But, at a minimum, he said, states should understand that the standards push has a downside. Mr. Lillard conducted the study, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Economics of Education Review, with Philip P. DeCicca, a research associate at the University of Michigan.

Though some educators and policymakers have long speculated that stiffer graduation requirements could result in higher dropout rates, empirical research on the subject has been limited. A 1994 study conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a federally financed research organization, did not find any increase in dropout rates nationally between the early 1980s and 1993.

Complex Analysis

“During that period of time, there was no increase in the dropout rate and, further, the gap in graduation rates between African-Americans and whites continued to narrow,” said Andrew C. Porter, an author of the 1994 study and the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“I’d love to see this piece,” he said of the new study. “That’s the opposite of what I concluded.”

To reach their conclusions, Mr. Lillard and Mr. DeCicca analyzed five different data sets: state-level dropout data from the 1980 and 1990 U.S. Census; high school attrition rates from 1980 through 1994, from the U.S. Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics; and data on individual decisions to leave school, from the federal “High School and Beyond” surveys and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.

In each case, the researchers looked at the correlation between those data and the number of Carnegie units—a standard measure of high school course credits— required to graduate in a state at a particular point in time. They controlled for other variables that might also contribute to the dropout rate, such as family income.

“We’ve gone to all these different data sources, and we consistently find a statistical relationship between the dropout rate and the graduation requirements,” Mr. Lillard said last week. “It’s sort of like a wake- up call, we hope, to the research community to say, ‘We need to pay attention to this.’”

Requiring 2.5 more courses over four years of high school would raise the dropout rate an additional 26,000 to 65,000 students nationwide per year, the researchers estimated, depending on which analysis is used.

“There may well be a lot of benefits to having higher standards, as well,” Mr. DeCicca said. “Definitely, we need to look at two sides of the equation here.” States might consider providing more support for students at the academic margins, he said, or greater flexibility in meeting the standards.

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as Study Links Dropout Rate With Course Requirements


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