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February 2006 | Volume 63 | Number 5
Helping Struggling Students Pages 14-18

The Dropout Problem: Losing Ground

Paul E. Barton

As we strive to improve high school achievement, we must not forget the increasing number of students who fail to graduate.

A recent upsurge of interest in the student dropout problem seems to have come as a surprise to U.S. school officials and policymakers. During the last two decades, complacency had set in as reports from the U.S. Census Bureau's household survey suggested that high school completion among young adults was approaching 90 percent, the goal set by the first National Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1989. The long-dormant concern about dropouts revived several years ago, however, when half a dozen independent researchers in universities and think tanks began publishing estimates of high school completion rates that contradicted the official rates. As a result, the issue of high school dropouts has returned to the front burner.

Many Estimates, Similar Results

The recent independent estimates of high school completion rates are almost always lower than the official estimates—including those that states have reported to the U.S. Department of Education under the requirements of No Child Left Behind and the state estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics. These independent estimates—derived through different methods and not always pertaining to the same year—vary somewhat, but they are all in the same ballpark. Jay Greene at the Manhattan Institute estimated a high school completion rate of 71 percent for 1998; Christopher Swanson and Duncan Chaplin at the Urban Institute estimated 66.6 percent for 2000; Thomas Mortenson of Postsecondary Education Opportunity estimated 66.1 percent for 2000; Andrew Sum and colleagues at Northeastern University estimated 68.7 percent for 1998; and Walter Haney and colleagues at Boston College estimated 74.4 percent for 2001. I describe these studies and their methodologies in detail in Unfinished Business: More Measured Approaches in Standards-Based Reform (Barton, 2005a).

The well-publicized contradictions of official estimates led to a minor political explosion, particularly after the Education Trust (2003) attacked the accuracy of the states' reports to the Department of Education. Then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige appointed a task force to look into the matter. Later, the National Governors Association convened a Task Force on State High School Graduation Data to propose a plan for how states could develop a high-quality, comparable high school graduation measure. All of this is being weighed in Washington and in state capitals.

A Closer Look at the Statistics

My own analysis (Barton, 2005a) confirmed the estimates of other researchers. I relied on two numbers I knew to be actual counts. One was the census count of the population cohort that would be of graduation age (17 or 18) in spring 2000; the other was the number of regular public and private high school diplomas awarded that year as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. My final analysis estimated that 69.6 percent of youth who were of graduating age had received diplomas in 2000.

To measure change over time, I made estimates for 1990 using the same approach and found a completion rate of 72 percent for that year. For both 1990 and 2000, I also estimated individual state completion rates, which varied broadly. For 1990, the spread was from 90.6 percent in Iowa down to 61.7 percent in Florida (and 59.9 percent in Washington, D.C.). In 2000, the percentage ranged from 88.2 percent in Vermont down to 55 percent in Arizona (and 48 percent in Washington, D.C.). Only seven states showed an increase in high school completion rates during the decade; rates in the remaining states declined (Barton, 2005b).

Other researchers have found that minorities have lower completion rates than white students. For example, Elaine Allensworth (2005) carried out an excellent study of Chicago schools, which had individual student records available to track students. Among boys, only 39 percent of black students graduated by age 19, compared with 51 percent of Latino students and 58 percent of white students. Girls fared better: Comparable rates were 57 percent for black students, 65 percent for Latino students, and 71 percent for white students.

Research on the path that students travel through the grades may also shed light on the dropout problem. For example, one study identified an important trend that has developed over the last decade: the “9th grade bulge.” Compared with past years, an increasing number of 9th graders are failing to be promoted to the 10th grade. Haney and colleagues (2004) found that in 2001, 440,000 more students were enrolled in grade 9 than in grade 8 the previous year. By 2001, seven states had at least 20 percent more students enrolled in the 9th grade than had been enrolled in that grade in the prior year, and one-half had at least 10 percent more. We know that there is an association between failing a grade and dropping out. And we know that more students are dropping out at younger ages.

The research conducted in the last couple of years raises many questions. One issue is why the U.S. Census Bureau household survey estimates differ from the lower completion rates found by independent researchers. We can explain this difference in part by the fact that the census lumped regular diplomas and GEDs together. The GED is a well-respected substitute, but it is not a regular diploma earned after completing four years of high school. Numerous research studies show that GED recipients tend to fare better than dropouts, but not as well as graduates with diplomas (Boesel, Alsalam, & Smith, 1998). Although the number of GEDs has become a growing proportion of total graduates, inclusion of GED recipients does not entirely account for the gaps among the estimates. Further analysis is needed to reconcile the remaining discrepancies.

Another question raised by the research is why completion rates, in terms of regular diplomas, fell during the last decade in so many states. Some of the likely suspects include the decrease in two-parent families, the previously mentioned 9th grade bulge, and higher standards for graduation. However, my analysis did not produce evidence conclusively linking high school completion rates to any of these factors.

A Deteriorating Economic Position

At the same time that high school completion rates have fallen, labor market prospects for dropouts are becoming increasingly dire. In 2003, 1.1 million 16- to 19-year-olds did not have a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school. In the landscape of the economy, these dropouts are often lost travelers without a map. Only 4 in 10 of the 16- to 19-year-olds are employed, as are fewer than 6 in 10 of 20- to 24-year-old dropouts. Black and Latino youth are doing considerably less well than others (T. Morisi, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal communication, July 14, 2004).

What about the earning power of those dropouts who do have jobs? Do they make enough money to support a household? For 25- to 34-year-old dropouts who manage to work full-time, the average annual salary of males dropped from $35,087 (in 2002 constant dollars) in 1971 to $22,903 in 2002, a decline of 35 percent. The comparable annual earnings for females without a diploma were $19,888 in 1971, declining to $17,114 in 2002. Even when they work full-time, the average earnings of this age group of dropouts are not far above the poverty line for a family with children—and most dropouts do not even reach this level of earnings. The earnings of high school graduates also have declined since 1971, but not as steeply as those of dropouts (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2004, Tables 14-1, 14-2, and 14-3).

Factors That Affect the Dropout Rate

Which student conditions and life experiences are correlated with failure to complete high school? A 2002 report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO)1  summarized the research. Factors that correlated with low completion rates included coming from low-income or single-parent families, getting low grades in school, being absent frequently, and changing schools. These factors vary considerably by state, as do high school completion rates.

These predictive factors do not determine completion rates, but they do show the conditions that schools need to overcome in their effort to maximize completions. Some schools rise above expectations, some schools meet them, and some schools do less well than expected.

To find out how the individual states performed in 2000 compared with what we might expect on the basis of conditions in each state, I computed the correlation of completion rates with expectations based on three factors: state average socioeconomic characteristics (family income, education, and occupation); the percentage of two-parent families; and the rate at which students change schools. I found that these factors accounted for almost 60 percent of the variation in state completion rates.

This comparison of the expected completion rates with the actual completion rates disclosed that the actual rate fell within 4 percentage points of the expected rate in 24 states. Except for Rhode Island and Hawaii, actual rates in the remaining states were within 10 points of the expected rates. The states doing the best in exceeding their expected completion rates were Hawaii, Maryland, Vermont, Connecticut, and West Virginia. The states doing the worst were Rhode Island, Indiana, South Carolina, and Arizona (Barton, 2005a). To learn more about increasing school completion rates, we should study both those states that greatly exceed the expected high school completion rate and those that fall far below it for clues about what these states are doing differently.

Increasing School Retention

The factors identified in the GAO report—that low-income students and high-mobility students are high-risk, that low achievement and grade retention are precursors to leaving school—provide a guide for what we need to do to improve high school completion rates. In my research, the factor most predictive was coming from a single-parent family (even after controlling for socioeconomic status). The extra effort that schools make to support students in all these circumstances will likely determine whether schools achieve higher or lower high school completion rates than expected.

Evaluations have established the effectiveness of a number of programs and models designed to increase school retention. The following models, described in more detail in One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities (Barton, 2005b), merit a close look by any state, district, or school wishing to embark on efforts to retain students in school.

  • The Talent Development High School was developed by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk (CRESPAR), a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University and Howard University. This model emphasizes small learning communities, curriculum reforms, professional development, interdisciplinary teams of teachers, longer class periods, and employer advisory boards. There are now 33 such high schools in 12 states.
  • Communities in Schools is designed specifically to keep students in school. Schools and community agencies form partnerships to deliver services and provide resources to students, such as individual case management, counseling, volunteers and mentors, remedial education, tutoring, classes teaching life skills and employment-related topics, and a variety of after-school programs.
  • Maryland Tomorrow is a large-scale statewide dropout prevention effort operating in 75 high schools and is directed at students considered at risk of dropping out. Among other components, the program includes counseling, intensive academic instruction during the summer and the school year, career guidance and exploration, a variety of summer activities, and adult mentors.
  • The Quantum Opportunities Program was launched in 1989 with funding from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor. Although the funding ended in 1999, the program's features offer a roadmap for providing supplemental services to students in schools that have large proportions of low-income and minority families. The program targeted randomly selected at-risk 9th graders entering inner-city high schools with high dropout rates. Using a comprehensive case management approach, the program provided year-round services to the participants throughout their four years of high school. Components included tutoring and homework assistance, computer-assisted instruction, life and family skills training, supplemental after-school education, developmental activities, mentoring, community service activities, and financial planning.

The documented results of these programs, together with the growing research on public alternative schools (Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002), provide a knowledge base about comprehensive approaches to increasing both academic achievement and high school completion rates—which generally go hand in hand.

When it comes to working with individual students to avert a decision to drop out, however, there is a serious impediment. Guidance counselors, working with teachers, are the logical people to identify, track, and help students who show the well-known predropout behaviors: frequent absenteeism, course failure, and negative attitudes. But these professionals can hardly perform such work given the current ratio of 1 counselor to almost 300 high school students—a ratio that is even worse in high-minority schools (NCES, 2004, Table 27-1). In addition, almost all of a counselor's time goes to scheduling courses, helping students with college choice and admissions, performing hall and lunchroom duty, and, increasingly, dealing with test administration (NCES, 2001).

Somehow, schools must recruit individuals who have the time to interact with students one-on-one: more counselors, more volunteers, and more paid and unpaid mentors and tutors. How schools achieve this aim will vary, but any viable approach will require additional effort and resources at the school, school district, or state level (or all three).

Schools attempting to tackle the dropout problem face strikingly different circumstances. At one end of the spectrum are the schools in suburban neighborhoods where most students graduate and go on to college. Here, the relatively few students who appear dropout-prone can be identified, and resources are likely to be available to help them. At the other end are the schools in poor inner-city neighborhoods where families may have less time to supervise after-school activities or interact with the schools to address student absenteeism, misbehavior, or concerns about homework. Here, efforts to increase high school completion will require considerable additional resources, including the help of the larger community. All sorts of school situations lie in between, and no handy formula will apply across the board. But policymakers, administrators, and legislators have a base of knowledge to draw on, as well as information about good practices that work at the school and classroom levels.

A Battle on Two Fronts

The growing demands for high school reform have emphasized the need for higher achievement levels for students who graduate from high school so that they are prepared to either succeed in college or go directly into academically demanding jobs. Although such efforts are important, any reform initiatives that do not also make inroads on the dropout situation can hardly be considered successful. We face a hard battle on two fronts—one to make high school more rigorous, and the other to keep more students in high school through graduation.


Allensworth, E. (2005). Graduation and dropout trends in Chicago: A look at cohorts of students from 1991 through 2004. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Barton, P. (2005a, January). Unfinished business: More measured approaches in standards-based reform. (Policy Information Report). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, Policy Information Center. Available:

Barton, P. (2005b). One-third of a nation: Rising dropout rates and declining opportunities. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, Policy Information Center. Available:

Boesel, D., Alsalam, N., & Smith, T. M. (1998). Educational and labor market performance of GED recipients. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Education Library.

Education Trust. (2003, December). Telling the whole truth (or not) about high school graduation. Washington, DC: Author.

Haney, W., Madaus, G., Abrams, L., Wheelock, A., Miao, J., & Gruia, I. (2004). The education pipeline in the United States, 1970–2004. Chestnut Hill, MA: National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy.

Kleiner, B., Porch, R., & Farris, E. (2002, September). Public alternative schools and programs for students at risk of education failure, 2000–01. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

National Center for Education Statistics [NCES]. (2001). Survey on high school guidance counseling. Washington, DC: Author.

NCES. (2004). The condition of education 2004. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. General Accounting Office. (2002). School dropouts: Education could play a stronger role in identifying and disseminating promising prevention strategies. (GAO-02-240). Washington, DC: Author.


1  Effective July 7, 2004, the GAO's legal name became the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Paul E. Barton is a Senior Associate at Educational Testing Service's Policy Information Center and an independent education writer and consultant;


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