Chapter 2
I. What are the characteristics of your dropout crisis and graduation challenge?

An important first step toward understanding your community’s dropout crisis is to establish its extent and location. To do this you need to answer two questions:

  • What percent and number of the students who start the ninth grade in your community do not graduate from high school within four years — or at any time?
  • Which elementary, middle, high schools and/or alternative and virtual schools do most of your dropouts pass through?

Although these are essential questions, they have often been difficult to answer because until recently few school districts or states collected and published consistent, comparable graduation rates and dropout data.

Fortunately, the vast majority of states now report Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rates (ACGR), the most accurate available measure of high school graduation. Using the ACGR allows one to ask and answer the question, “How many students who entered this school for the first time in ninth grade, minus those who transferred out, plus those who transferred in, received a regular high school diploma on time, four years later?”

Data on the adjusted cohort graduation rate in the school districts in your community should be available from both your state department of education’s website (see links below) and from the annual school report.

The difference between the number of students in the first-time ninth grade adjusted cohort and the number of diplomas awarded will give you an estimate of the number of students who are dropping out. Given extra time, some of these students will ultimately graduate from high school, but typically, adding fifth- and sixth-year graduation rates adds no more than a 5 to 10 percentage point increase over four-year graduation rates.

The one caveat for using adjusted cohort graduation rates to estimate the size of the dropout crisis and graduation challenge is to check how student enrollment in charter schools, virtual schools, and alternative schools is recorded in your state. In some states, charters, virtual and alternative schools are still considered to be part of the local school district and hence students attending those schools will be captured in the school district’s overall graduation rate. In other states, however, charters, virtual schools or alternative schools may be considered their own school districts or part of statewide school districts. In these cases, students from your community who attend, but ultimately dropout from, these schools will not be captured in the graduation rate statistics reported for what have been traditionally viewed as the school districts in your community.

Which Schools Do Most of the Dropouts in Your Community Attend?

It is important to understand which schools in your community the majority of your dropouts attend, in order to target resources, reforms, and supports to where they are most needed and will have the greatest impact. This will often require some detective work.

Broadly speaking, there are four dominant trends, and the first step is to identify where your community falls.

1) Communities in which dropouts pass through a subset of high-poverty schools. Here it is important to identify both high schools that most of the dropouts attend and the middle and elementary schools that send students to these schools. In these communities, there is often substantial student mobility between high schools, and so you may need to examine students’ patterns of rotation among a small set of schools.

2) Communities where large numbers of students attend alternative or virtual high schools. Here it is important to determine not only the final high school students attended before dropping out, but also the high schools where most of the community’ dropouts began ninth grade, as well as their middle and elementary feeder schools.

3) Communities with only a single high school. The challenge is to determine, if there are more than one middle school and one elementary school, and in which feeder schools dropouts originate. Two and three high school communities are also often relatively easy to analyze.

4) Communities in which most high schools have graduation rates near or above the state average, but a subset of students consistently has low graduation rates across all or most of the high schools, i.e. low- income students, special education students, English language learners, and some minority populations.

See Tools 3 and 5 for help in figuring out where your community falls and how to locate the schools most of your community’s dropouts attend.

When and why are students dropping out?

To solve its dropout crisis, your community will need a detailed understanding of when and why your students are dropping out. This will require an in-depth investigation, the involvement of your school district(s), often an outside research partner, and perhaps three to six months to complete. You should not wait to launch your efforts to accelerate graduation rates in your community until you have these data. You can make much progress while the information is being collected and analyzed. However, refining your solutions will require knowing when and why your students are dropping out.

When are students dropping out?

To get a handle on the dropout challenge, you need to learn how far students are from graduating when they drop out. Most states require 20–24 credits for a standard diploma and have course distribution requirements among the different subject areas. Some districts require 27 or 28 credits, especially for block-scheduled schools.

By looking at school transcript and attendance records of recent dropouts, you can determine:

  • What percentage of dropouts is only a few credits shy of those needed for graduation?
  • What percentage of dropouts has one-half to three-quarters of the credits needed?
  • What percentage of dropouts has less than a quarter of the credits needed?
  • Is dropping out associated with failing specific courses, such as algebra?

Another piece of information is vitally important: How old are the students when they drop out? Are many staying in school, getting older every year, but not earning credits? Work with your school system to gather this information.

 Finally, it is important to understand the attendance histories of students who drop out. How many were essentially part-time students the year before they dropped out, attending 70 percent of the time or less? How many were chronically absent? Did they have a history of absenteeism that started in middle school? In elementary school?

Why are students dropping out?

Earlier in this report we heard from students who had already dropped out. We also discussed the ABCs — attendance, behavior, and course-passing/credit accrual — as indicators, or markers of students’ likelihood of eventually dropping out. Here we think about students from a different perspective – what are the triggers or conditions that actually cause them to leave? And how many of a school’s dropouts fall into which category below? Once we know the answers to those questions, we are better equipped to figure out solutions.

Life Events: Some students drop out because of an event or a need outside of school. Pregnancy, incarceration or out-of-home placement in the juvenile justice system, health problems, caring for an ill family member, or needing to work to support themselves or family members are the most frequent factors.

Fade Outs: Some students drop out because they no longer see the point of staying in school. Often these are students with decent grades and attendance records who at some point become bored, frustrated, or disillusioned with school and believe they can make it in life without a high school diploma.

Push Outs: Some students may be viewed as behavioral problems or low-achievers, and/or they seldom attend school. Once these students reach the legal dropout age, sometimes their schools apply administrative rules — related to suspensions, inadequate credits earned by a certain age, or chronic absenteeism — to remove them from school or transfer them to another school. Others are simply counseled out.

Failure to Succeed in School: Some students drop out of school because they do not pass enough courses or earn enough credits to be promoted to the next grade.

Many dropouts begin to fall off the path to graduation in the middle grades, where they begin to fail courses, miss a lot of school, or misbehave. There are others who do well in middle school but encounter challenges in the high school environment. Studies in many different cities and states have found that the key decision point from a student’s perspective is ninth grade. When students fail to be promoted from to tenth grade, they begin to rethink their attitude toward school. In some schools, students who fail even one course have to repeat the entire ninth grade and, without any help, do no better the second time. In others, students repeat only the course they failed. At some point after repeated attempts to succeed (though often with decreasing effort), they feel that they will never do so and they drop out.

It is important to develop a good estimate of the percentage of students who are dropping out in your community because of “life events,” “fade out,” “push out,” or “failing to succeed.” This will help your community pinpoint the kinds of prevention, intervention, and recovery programs that will best meet student needs.

For instance, you may need to consider:

  • Intensive supports to keep struggling students on track and successful in high school before they fail;
  • In- and out-of-school catch-up, tutoring, and mentoring programs for students with a moderate need for support;
  • Rapid credit-earning programs for students who need just a few more credits to graduate – as long as these programs are of high quality. Typically, such programs combine schooling with work opportunities for students, particularly older students who need to support themselves while earning a moderate number of credits;
  • Innovative programs that offer students opportunities to gain credits rapidly in short bursts, and that also offer work opportunities, attentive counseling and social services, especially for older students who have few credits.

Getting the answers

There are several ways the students who drop out of school can be classified. We also know that there are a few important indicators – the ABCs – that give us a handle on students’ challenges early on and serve as the basis for first interventions.

But if we limit ourselves to impersonal data, conveyed by numbers and our analysis of numbers and patterns in them, we may not understand in-depth what is going on in our own community or what our children are thinking.

For that reason, it is important to talk with middle and high school students and dropouts directly – in surveys, interviews, and focus groups.

Ask middle and high school students why they miss school and what causes them to become disengaged with school

First, inquiries of students currently in school should be developed with the support and input of the district. Most likely they will need to give approval and help in the logistics. In large schools, consider surveying a sample of students rather than all students, such as sampling every third homeroom. Recognize that students are more open when a survey is anonymous.

The inquiry itself can be quite simple.

  • Ask students about their attendance.
  • Ask students to report how many days of school so far or in the current term they have missed for different reasons, including personal choice, school climate reasons, and home or community factors.
  • Ask students about their school and classroom experience and what would help them become more engaged and successful in school.

Students often say they start to turn off from school because they are not being challenged or, in their words, “not much is going on.” For this reason, it is helpful to examine students’ attitudes and learn how much they value their teachers, the classroom learning environment, and the instruction they are receiving.


From the student surveys, you can get a sense of whether students are getting grade-level, standards-based, high-quality instruction, and if not, why not.

Surveys can also reveal:

  • Are academic expectations geared toward college and career readiness, and are quality instructional materials available?
  • Is there a need for experiences outside the classroom—such as job shadowing, work study, or service-learning—that connect classroom learning to skills they need for their careers and for life?
  • Are too many students absent or misbehaving, creating lost learning opportunities for all?
  • Do students feel safe coming to school and in school?

We know these are complex questions, but having an insight into the educational environment is critical to shaping responses that will help curb our high school dropout crisis.

Ask dropouts and students who appear close to dropping out: Why?

You’ll also want to ask dropouts themselves about the final act — dropping out. What causes them to leave school before they earn a high school diploma?

It can be difficult to locate dropouts, and even when you do, you won’t be able to determine whether they are representative of those you can’t find. This does not mean you should not try.

You might want to consider creating an audio or video recording of dropouts. The student voice is powerful, and hearing dropouts discuss why they left school can have a galvanizing effect on a community. It puts a human face and story behind the issue. Dropouts also can display tremendous strength, which offers hope to those who might think it’s too late to bring dropouts back to school once they have left.

A complementary approach is to conduct focus groups or interviews with students who appear to be close to dropping out — those students who are attending less than 75 percent of the time. These students are easier to find, and you can make sure that you interview a representative sample by interviewing every third student, in alphabetical order, who meets the lack-of-attendance criterion. You should try to interview about 10 students in each school that produces a significant number of the district’s dropouts.

Don’t focus only on students in alternative schools; be sure to include students from traditional high schools as well.

If possible, you may want to consider training a peer or near-peer to conduct the interviews. It will be important to probe for both non-school and school-related reasons for a student’s decreasing attendance and to ask the students to reflect on what might help and/or stand in the way of their graduating. Remember that, depending on your district’s policies, you may need to get informed consent from the students being interviewed.

The results of the interviews can then be used not only to inform the longer-term dropout reduction strategy, but also to devise plans and supports that will encourage students with decreasing attendance to stay in school.

Ask parents for their perspective

It can also be instructive to survey or interview parents and other caregivers to understand their perspective on the dropout issue. For instance, why do they think students are dropping out in their child’s school? Do they suspect their child may be considering dropping out? Are they aware of how often their child is absent? Do they receive timely information about other ways their child may be falling off-track so they can provide extra supports at home? Are they comfortable interacting with their child’s teachers or administrators to monitor progress? Do they know where to turn in the community for tutoring, mentoring or other needed wraparound supports? Answers to these and other questions will help inform your community’s response to the dropout issue.

Deeper Look

Models for Analysis

These investigations into the characteristics of dropouts and the timing of when students drop out can serve as models for an analysis of your community;

The Silent Epidemic (Civic Enterprises/Gates Foundation)

The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research’s numerous publications examine indicators and outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students throughout the school and college continuum

Unfulfilled Promise: The Dimensions and Characteristics of Philadelphia’s Dropout Crisis, 2000-2005.

The Challenge of On-Time Arrival, The Flight Patterns of Baltimore’s Sixth-Graders of 1999-2000. Baltimore Education Research Consortium (BERC)

Sample Surveys

  • The annual Chicago Public Schools’ Connection Survey. Its questions address students’ views of a) safe and respectful climate;
    b) academic rigor; c) student support; and d) social and emotional learning
  • The Center for Education and Evaluation, Indiana University, annual High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE).
    More than 80,000 students from 22 states shared their perceptions of how much work they do and in what areas, what interests them, and what areas need improvement

Additional Information

Students frequently mention the need for challenging material combined with caring support from educators. Maintaining high expectations for students while taking their individual circumstances into account is also a common theme. These books explore students’ perceptions as well as school practices that create a quality learning environment:

  • Listening to Urban Kids: School Reform and the Teachers They Want
    Gives urban middle school students a forum for explaining what they believe are the keys to their academic success. The results reveal that they, like older students, also want to be challenged and supported by educators.
  • Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students by Kathleen Cushman
    Offers educators insight into the minds of teenage students in several cities. To listen to the author’s reflections on the book, visit the website.

Girls report particular challenges, such as pregnancy, parenting and sibling care responsibilities, that contribute to them dropping out. For tools and resources for keeping pregnant and parenting teens in school, see:

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