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Dropouts: Myths v. Realities

Myth: Students drop out mostly for social, family, or personal reasons that have little to do with school.

Reality: Dropouts are more than twice as likely to say they left for reasons related to school than because of family or personal circumstances. Students’ educational experiences are more accurate warning signs of whether they will drop out than demographic characteristics like gender, race, age, or poverty.

Myth: Dropping out is a sudden and often surprising event that can’t be predicted.

Reality: For most, dropping out is the culmination of a long-term process of educational withdrawal preceded by years of poor academic performance and disengagement from school. Most dropouts show clear warning signs by ninth grade and many well before that. In Philadelphia, researchers can identify fifty percent of eventual dropouts as early as sixth grade and an additional thirty percent by ninth grade. Chicago developed an “on-track” indicator that is eighty-five percent accurate in predicting which ninth graders will make it to graduation.

Myth: Dropping out is a personal decision that has nothing to do with how schools operate.

Reality: High schools vary widely in their holding power above and beyond the individual risk factors students bring with them. The factors that contribute most to students’ decision to drop out are “alterable,” meaning there are things schools can do to change them. These include creating environments where students have supportive relationships with teacher and peers, and they are both challenged and supported academically.

Myth: Students drop out because they are bored, not because they struggle academically.

Reality: Researchers in Chicago and Philadelphia have found that most dropouts fail courses and get behind in credits before leaving high school, and failing just one class the first semester of ninth grade can cause a downward spiral that ends with dropping out. Academic performance and educational engagement are both important, and students can drop out because of either one—or, more often, both.

Myth: If we just made sure all students were academically prepared to handle high school coursework, the dropout problem would go away.

Reality: Poor academic preparation puts students at greater risk of dropping out, but simply raising eighth grade test scores will not solve the problem. Even high-achieving students can have a rocky transition to ninth grade, especially in large high schools that provide little social and academic support.

Myth: Students drop out because they have low ambitions.

Reality: Today’s teenagers are the most academically ambitious generation in U.S. history. All but one percent of sophomores say they plan to graduate from high school, nearly ninety percent say they plan to continue their educations, and three in four say they plan to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher.



Posted: April 6, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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