The month of October is dedicated to raising awareness for dropout prevention efforts, an issue that slowly but surely has been improving in our country. Since 1986, graduation rates have risen to the current 83%–an all-time high for our nation.

But as long as we aren’t at a 100% graduation rate there is still work to be done. We know the students in the remaining 17% who decide to dropout are lost potential in so many ways, and often make this choice not because they dislike school and learning but because they feel they don’t have any other choices.

The following table was created from seven studies spanning five decades reporting why students choose to dropout of school. The analysis presents three “types” of reasons:

  • Push: Adverse situations within the school environment ultimately lead to dropping out
  • Pull: Factors inside a student divert them from completing school
  • Fall: A student lacks academic progress as a side-effect of insufficient support

While any one factor—or even several factors—does not necessarily place students at risk, combinations of circumstances identify the potential to dropout.

The Good News

Since 2001, 2.8 million more students have graduated from high school, resulting in significant benefits for young people, the economy and the future of our nation. Here are some of the latest facts on high school graduation rates:

  •  Much of the gain made in recent years comes from increased graduation rates for students of color, with Hispanic/Latino students making gains of 6.8 percentage points and Black students increasing 7.6 points since 2011.
  • In 2014, 74.6 percent of Black students, 77.8 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 87.6 percent of White students graduated.
  • The existing data show that as more students are graduating, the percentage who are graduating college and career ready is not declining.
  • Nationwide, there are five high-graduation-rate high schools (85 percent graduation rate and above) for every one low-graduation rate high school (67 percent graduation rate and below).
  • As graduation rates have increased, so has the number of students participating in rigorous coursework, and taking and achieving on the corresponding exams:
    • The total number of graduates taking an AP course has risen from 558,993 in 2004 to over one million in 2013.
    • The number of students passing at least one AP course has risen in tandem, from 351,647 in 2004 to 607,505 in 2013.
    • This trend also holds true for low-income students, who historically take AP courses and exams at far lower rates than their non-low-income peers.

Opportunity Gaps Ahead

GradNation, a campaign organized by several education organizations to improve graduation rates, has a goal of raising the graduation rate to 90% by 2020. However, they report that the U.S. must double its pace of progress over the next five years in order to reach this goal.

According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, meeting the GradNation goal would likely create more than 65,000 new jobs and boost gross domestic product by $11.5 billion annually. And that’s for just one high school class.

Unfortunately for many states, progress has become stagnant, often due to specific student subgroups who are continually left behind. While some states have raised graduation rates for these groups as noted above, we do continue to see lower rates in many other states for low-income, special needs, Black, Hispanic/Latino and ELL students.

  • Ten states reported graduation rates for Hispanic/Latino students below 70% and another 22 states had Hispanic/Latino graduation rates between 70-80%.
  • The graduation rate for Black students was less than 70% in 12 states and between 70-80% in 25 other states.
  •  In 11 states, the graduation rate for low-income students was below 70% and in 28 other states, between 70-80% of low-income students graduated on time.
  •  In 33 states, English Language Learners (ELLs) graduated at rates less than 70%, and in five of those states, less than 50% of ELLs graduated on time.
  • Thirty-three states graduated less than 70% of their students with disabilities (SWDs), and in four of those states, less than 50%of SWDs graduated on time.
  • In contrast, 33 states reported graduation rates for White students at 85% or more and 43 states graduated 85% or more of non-low-income students.

In order to close this equity gap, America needs to focus on the states, districts and remaining low-performing schools where students still graduate in low numbers. Fortunately, there are growing numbers of states that know what works and can share best practices with developing states.

Dropout Prevention Strategies

Dropout prevention can be implemented at many different levels. At a local level, The National Dropout Prevention Center shares these 15 strategies as having the most positive impact on reducing school dropout:

Foundational Strategies

  • Systemic Approach
  • School-Community Collaboration
  • Safe Learning Environments

Early Interventions

  • Family Engagement
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Early Literacy Development

Basic Core Strategies

  • Mentoring/Tutoring Service-Learning
  • Alternative Schooling
  • Afterschool/Out-of-School Opportunities

Managing and Improving Instruction

  • Professional Development
  • Active Learning
  • Educational Technology
  • Individualized Instruction
  • Career and Technical Education (CTE)

GradNation offers the following policies and practices at the state level to continue raising graduation rates (see this year’s GradNation report for more details):

  • Create high-quality ESSA implementation plans and maintain accountability for underserved students.
  • Create evidence-based plans to improve low-graduation-rate high schools.
  • Get the cohort rate right.
  • Report extended-year graduation rates.
  • Strengthen accountability for non-traditional high schools.
  • Convene a next-generation Governors’ summit on high school and postsecondary completion.

While we haven’t quite made it to eliminating dropping out of school altogether, for the first time in several decades we’ve improved the graduation rate in this country, helping many who might not have graduated go on to be successful in college, career and life.

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