When Students Call It Quits
Better Information May Help Explain Why
For many young people, quitting school is a process, not an isolated event. Some students drop out in spirit long before they stop showing up for classes. And they frequently send signals indicating their potential to give up on school. Increased absenteeism, poor grades, and discipline problems are common red flags. The outcome can have lifelong impacts. Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed, and, compared with high school graduates, they earn considerably less money over the course of their lives.
Given the intricate web of circumstances that can lead a teen to quit school, teasing out a single or even primary cause is nearly impossible. Historically, dropout rates have been higher among students who are socially and economically disadvantaged, lack English proficiency, or are learning disabled. But school practices, environments, and resources also factor into decisions to quit. A new report from the National Research Council calls for major improvements in the collection and analysis of dropout statistics to enhance understanding of the issues, including factors that may influence students' decisions to leave school. Early identification of at-risk children -- from preschool through the elementary grades -- is also critical. Such students typically need ongoing support, the academic equivalent of intensive care, and counseling to encourage them to stay focused on their education.
With a growing number of states now requiring students to pass "high-stakes" exams as a prerequisite for entering the next grade or graduating from high school, some researchers wonder whether such testing policies will exacerbate the dropout problem among already vulnerable groups. Testing can indeed be a valuable tool, shedding light on student performance and sometimes providing teachers with information they can use to boost instruction and academic achievement. When used improperly, however, it can have negative outcomes that hit students at risk the hardest.
But because many states have only recently begun to use high-stakes exams, limited scientific evidence exists to determine what effects, if any, they have on dropout rates, the report says. Moreover, debates about the consequences of testing and other education reforms have suffered from inadequate data on the scope of the dropout problem itself.
Gauging the extent of the problem is tough because officials at all levels use various methods to define and count high school dropouts, noted the committee that wrote the report. At the national level, for example, federal statistics suggest that the overall dropout rate among 16- to 24-year-olds has fallen during the past two decades -- from 14.6 percent in 1979 to 11.2 percent in 1999. But authorities warn that the 1999 data may not be comparable with those from previous years because of changes in data-collection procedures. In addition, the reported rates for that age group do not include people who may have quit school but later received a general equivalency diploma. And those are only some of the caveats for federal data.
Policy-makers need information that allows better comparisons over time and between jurisdictions, the report says. It's also important to have a clearer picture of the different ways students can be counted as having completed school -- such as obtaining a GED or alternative diploma -- and of the students taking various paths. Likewise, researchers should more closely examine risk factors that show up in young children, so that they can be helped before they begin to tune out of school.
The U.S. Department of Education should lead and oversee efforts to coordinate data collection in this area, the committee said. Ultimately, better information could help educators identify kids who would benefit from intervention measures such as individual counseling and smaller school settings that offer more one-on-one attention from teachers. More complete data also could help officials evaluate the effectiveness of such measures. -- Vanee Vines
Understanding Dropouts: Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. Standing Committee on Educational Excellence and Testing Equity, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2001, 66 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07602-1; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $18.00 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee's co-chairs are Ulric Neisser, professor of psychology, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and William T. Trent, professor of educational policy studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.