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Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery
John H. Tyler Magnus Lofstrom

Who Drops Out - and Why?

Even the most optimistic assessments of national dropout rates suggest that far too many students are leaving school early. Economic, societal, and equity considerations all point to the need for interventions that could cause some of the roughly one million students who leave school each year to make a different decision. The importance of reducing the number of school dropouts is also reflected in NCLB, which requires states to incorporate graduation rates in their accountability systems for schools and school districts.

A first step in thinking systematically about how to affect dropout decisions is to have a good understanding of the characteristics and lives of students most at risk of leaving school early. That is, who are the students who tend to drop out, and what causes them to leave school? Although researchers know quite a bit about the characteristics of students who leave school, we know much less about the causal factors that lead to the school-leaving decision.

The great bulk of the research on why students leave school comes from post-dropout surveys and interviews of students who have left school. A recent example is "The Silent Epidemic," a study of dropouts supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that interviewed 467 sixteen- to twenty-four-year-old dropouts across the nation.20 Other research relies on student responses to questions posed in data sets such as the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.21 Not surprisingly, students report a variety of reasons for leaving school early, and studies consistently find that a complex set of relationships between student, family, school, and community factors are linked with the dropout decision. Importantly, a substantial body of research suggests that the decision to drop out is often not made suddenly as the result of recent and potentially temporary factors, but rather is part of a longer process of disengagement from school.22

Although interesting, the reasons dropouts offer to explain why they leave school do not necessarily reveal the true underlying causes, and hence do not positively identify specific factors that school officials and policymakers can address. But effectively and efficiently addressing the dropout problem clearly requires knowing these underlying causal factors.

Students regularly report, for example, some measure of school disengagement as the primary reason for leaving school.23 The commonality of these responses ("did not like school" and "classes were not interesting") is often cited as a reason that schools must become more "relevant" and that teachers must learn to structure curriculum and pedagogy so that it is more "interesting" and "engaging" to students at risk of dropping out. Both suggestions may be completely on the mark and, if enacted on a wide scale, might reduce dropout rates.

But if the causal arrow in the above responses ran the other way, the types of school reform being urged would have a much smaller than anticipated effect on dropout rates. That is, if other nonschool factors cause a student to lose interest in school and drop out, then focusing on school disengagement and ignoring the underlying factors that cause the school disengagement might do little to change the dropout decision. Of course, the goal is to uncover the underlying causes, and it is not clear how well research has done in that realm. As a result, information on the "causes" of dropping out generally rests on a combination of the observable characteristics, behaviors, and outcomes of dropouts, along with their self-reported reasons for leaving school.

Student Characteristics
Student characteristics associated with a higher probability of dropping out, often called student "risk factors," are both numerous and oft-cited as dropout "predictors." Not surprisingly, poor school performance is a strong predictor of dropping out of school. For example, low test scores, course failure, and grade retention have all been found to be strongly associated with leaving school.24 As noted, weak student engagement, often measured by absenteeism and discipline problems in survey data, is also strongly linked with a higher dropout probability.25

Early adult responsibilities have also been linked with a lower likelihood of graduation. One such responsibility is becoming a parent. Although teen parents are more likely than their peers who are not parents to drop out of school, research does not provide a clear picture of whether childbearing has a causal impact on the probability of quitting school. Not surprisingly, much of the research focuses on women.26 Early research quite clearly indicates that having a child has a strong negative effect on educational attainment, but more recent work questions this conclusion.27 Joseph Hotz, Susan McElroy, and Seth Sanders use a creative empirical method in an attempt to obtain causal estimates and find a small negative but statistically insignificant effect of childbearing on teenage mothers' probability of earning a traditional high school diploma.28 The additional responsibilities and demands of parenthood make this finding surprising. Most recently, Jason Fletcher and Barbara Wolfe, using an empirical approach similar that of Hotz and his colleagues, but also controlling for community effects and using alternative comparison groups, find that teenage childbearing decreases the probability of graduating with a traditional high school diploma by 5 to 10 percentage points.29

Out-of-school work also affects the probability of dropping out. Several studies find that students who work while in school are more likely to drop out.30 A closer look reveals, however, that working a few hours a week has no negative effect and may even have a positive effect on graduating.31 The negative effect appears with intensive work involvement— more than twenty hours a week—and with certain types of jobs.32 The effects also vary by gender, race, and ethnicity. Clearly some students who work do not do so voluntarily but as a result of a family situation.

Family Characteristics
Students' family background greatly affects their educational outcomes and is commonly viewed as the most important predictor of schooling achievement.33 Among the strongest family domain dropout predictors are parental education, occupation, and income—in other words, socioeconomic status.34 Although students who need to take a job to help out the family are more likely to drop out of school, Stephen Cameron and James Heckman find that long-run factors associated with parental background and family environment matter the most for students' schooling progress, including graduation from high school.35 These long-run factors may partially reflect parental involvement in school and the greater human capital investment in children's education in relatively well-to-do families.36 Family stability, reflected in both family structure and school mobility, has also been linked to quitting school.37 Potentially important, but less well-researched, are the roles played by family preferences, and attitudes, and how well families are informed about the importance of education in modern society.

School Characteristics
Much of the task of reducing dropout rates falls on the schools. Implicit in NCLB is the notion that schools can affect the dropout decision of students, and research shows that school characteristics do affect student achievement.38 But although some school characteristics, such as school practices and processes, resources, size, and pupil-teacher ratio, are under the control of school policy, others, such as student composition and location, are arguably not. Russell Rumberger and Scott Thomas find that pupil-teacher ratio, the quality of teachers, and school size all influence the dropout probability of students in the expected direction.39 And Magnus Lofstrom reports that spending per pupil, school location, and student composition affect students' dropout probability.40 Furthermore, Cory Koedel finds that teacher quality also determines dropout outcomes.41

Accountability and High-Stakes Exit Exams
High-stakes exit exams are the tests that students must pass to graduate. These exams are controversial for a number of reasons, not least because they may lower high school completion rates, especially those of minority students. Existing research does not provide an entirely clear picture of the effect of high-stakes testing. Brian Jacob found that graduation tests appear to have no effect on the probability of dropping out of high school for the average student, but that they make it significantly more likely that the lowest-performing students, who are disproportionately minorities, will drop out.42 The disproportionately negative effect on low-performing students is also stressed by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob.43 Research is decidedly mixed. Several other studies indicate a more widespread negative effect of exit exams on high school completion rates.44 But one study finds no link between exit exam requirements and high school completion, even for low-achieving students.45 Overall, most of the evidence suggests that exit exams may not be a graduation barrier for the average student, but that they are for disadvantaged and low-achieving students.

Clearly, of the many factors that affect students' decision to leave school, relatively few, including the economic situation of students' families, are easily affected directly by school policy. But the decision to drop out, once made, is highly costly both to the student and to society.