Research: high school dropouts

As I continued my research for my dissertation, I realized that the review of literature would need to cover 3 areas:  at-risk youth, charter schools, and online schools.  Today, I am sharing what the research says about at-risk youth – youth who are at risk of not graduating and dropping out of high school.

The ongoing statistics regarding student dropouts are not acceptable for the United States:

  • 37 students drop out of high school every hour in the U.S.
  • 1.3 million students—that’s over 7,000 every school day—do not graduate from high school on time (Alliance for Excellent Education)
  • 30% of students do not graduate from high school….and it has been the same for the past 50 years ( Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez , 1989 )
  • 50% of African American and Latino males do not earn a high school diploma (America’s Promise Alliance)

Blogs like Dropout Nation highlight many of these dismal statistics.

In 1909, Leonard Ayres researched students who were in school to determine why they dropped out and he concluded:  “Lack of school success is probably the greatest single cause which impels pupils to drop out of school.”

My review of literature regarding at-risk youth or students likely to drop out of school found that dropping out is a result of a complex combination of individual, family and school factors over time.  These factors have been identified by Cervantes (1965) and Hammond (2007) and can be found as part of my Appendices here.

Who drops out of high school is generally determined by individual and family factors, location, and ethnicity.  Generally, the largest percentage of students who drop out of high school are males who come from families who live in poverty, have parents who do not have a high school or college degree, or live with one parent (Cataldi et al., 2009; Llagas & Snyder, 2003; Orfield et al., 2004).  Students who live in southern states have a greater chance of dropping out than do students who live in the north or west (Balfanz & Legters, 2004).  Additionally, students who are an ethnicity other than Anglo or Asian are at higher risk of dropping out.

Mann (1986) specifically categorized dropouts as either “children who failed to learn” or “schools that failed to teach” (p. 309).  A number of researchers have suggested that it is the latter category – school factors – that contribute to the majority of dropouts (Natriello et al., 1990; Rumberger, 1987; Schussler, 2002; Wehlage & Rutter, 1985).

What keeps students from dropping out has also been well researched. Overall, when students feel a sense of belonging, membership and engagement, and a community of support they remain in school.   A number of studies have found that mentor programs or the presence of a significant caring adult can cause at-risk students to remain in school (Outlaw, 2004; Rysewyk, 2008;).  One program that has documented success with at-risk students has been the Communities in Schools program which began in New York City and is highlighted in the book The Last Dropout.

The most recent report regarding student dropouts from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that the national status completion rate or students who have completed high school was 83.9% in 1980 and has risen to 89% in 2007 (Cataldi, Laird, KewalRamani, & Chapman, 2009).  A newer measure of dropouts – the averaged freshman graduation rate – became the common measure for determining dropouts in 2008 (A Uniform, Comparable Graduation Rate Graduation Rate, 2008).  The averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR), an estimate of the percentage of students who graduated on time and within 4 years, among public school students, trended upwards between the class of 2001-2002 and the class of 2005-2006, from 72.6% to 73.2% (Cataldi et al., 2009).

The next area of research was about charter schools which will be in the next post.

The entire dissertation is online at:


Ayres, L. P. (1909).  Laggards in our schools.  New York, NY:
Survey Associates.

Balfanz, R. (2007). What your community can do to end its dropout crisis: Learnings from research and practice. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from

Bridgeland, J. B., Dilulio, J. J., & Morison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Redmond, WA: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Cataldi, E. F., Laird, J., KewalRamani, A., & Chapman, C. (2009). High school dropout and completion rates in the United States: 2007. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved July 10, 2009, from

Cervantes, L. F. (1965). The dropout: Causes and cures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hammond, C. (2007).  Dropout risk factors and exemplary programs. Clemson, SC: Clemson University.

Laird, J., DeBell, M., & Chapman, C. (2006). Dropout rates in the United States: 2004. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved June 30, 2009, from

Milliken, B. (2007). The last dropout: stop the epidemic! Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Wehlage, G. G., Rutter, R. A., Smith, G. A., Lesko, N., & Fernandez, R. R. (1989). Reducing the risk: Schools as communities of support. New York: Falmer Press.


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