In October 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimated that 11% of 16-24 year olds (3.8 million) were not enrolled in high school and had not completed high school. Although improvements in the quality of education have been a major concern in the nation's schools over the past decade, the dropout rate has remained fairly constant. Hispanics continue to have the highest dropout rate of all major segments of the population.
As the United States moves toward a higher-skilled labor force, dropouts have fewer chances for success later in life. December 2000 census data indicate that adults who have not completed high school earn an average income of $16,121 a year, compared to $24,572 for adults with a high school diploma or GED. Dropouts are more likely to become dependent on public assistance, have health problems and engage in criminal activity.
One of the most confusing issues in addressing the dropout problem is how to calculate the dropout rate; specifically, when to count a student as having dropped out. For instance, students may report that they are planning to earn a GED, transfer to another school or be home schooled, and schools cannot always track their progress. Some schools might consider these students dropouts and others may not.
The federal government uses three sources of data to estimate high school dropouts: the October supplement to the Current Population Survey (CPS) collected by the Bureau of the Census; the Common Core of Data compiled by NCES; and data from NCES' Longitudinal Studies Program. Unfortunately, each of these studies is based on different populations and methods. Also, survey methods tend to have large sampling errors, and minority students and schools often are underrepresented.
These discrepancies suggest that current assessments of the dropout population may be underestimated. As the minority population grows, and as more schools initiate new methods of accountability such as exit exams, the basis for error may become even greater.
Research suggests that one major factor in determining student dropouts is parental income and education. Parents with more education often have higher-paying jobs, which gives their children access to better quality schools and learning support at home such as computers, school supplies and access to after-school programs. Other predictors of student persistence to graduate from high school include early academic achievement, grade retention and English language skills.
Compared with a decade ago, we know more about who drops out of school and why. Students who have fallen behind in reading, mathematics and writing are most likely to drop out when they get to high school. And children who are not ready to begin 1st grade are more likely than their peers to drop out of school later. We know that the dropout problem cannot be solved by schools alone. Preventing teens from dropping out of school requires services from and cooperation among schools, community agencies and local businesses.
States and school districts throughout the country have implemented a variety of measures and programs to prevent students from dropping out. Many dropout-prevention efforts focus on easing student transition from middle school to high school, thus keeping students engaged and enrolled. Other factors that prevent dropouts are low student-teacher ratios, nonthreatening environments, cultural sensitivity, family involvement and clear curriculum objectives.
Many states are implementing plans and strategies to identify and help students who are at risk of dropping out, including systems to collect and report dropout data for different groups of students; policies to reduce excessive absenteeism; and special assistance for particular groups of students, such as teen parents, children of migrant workers and children whose native language is not English.
The federal government supports many prevention efforts through its Dropout Prevention Demonstration Program, which provides grants to school districts that "utilize strategies proven effective for preventing students from dropping out of school." These strategies include: accelerated learning, attendance monitoring, family outreach, counseling services, career and higher education awareness, social support services, linkages among feeder schools, business and community involvement, coordination activities, evaluation, data collection and dropout tracking. In 2001, about $5 million in 12-month grants was made available to school districts throughout the country.