Dropout Rates - An Overview

Dropouts are not a new problem. The high school dropout rate in 1900 was 90%. In the 1930s only about one-third of the youth population completed high school. By 1950 the number who graduated had increased to 59%. In the 1970s the dropout rate continued to decrease, but it was still nearly 28% nationwide. (Grossnickle, 1986, p. 8)

Although students may be at risk relative to a number of things, the term "at risk" is usually used in relation to the propensity for a student to drop out of school prior to graduation. Reported dropout rates can be difficult to understand and compare for at least two reasons: (1) dropout status changes over time—many students who initially drop out of school re-enter the system at some point and complete the requirements for either a high school diploma or a General Educational Development (GED) certificate (McLaughlin, 1990); and (2) school districts, state agencies and researchers use differing operational definitions.

Some districts count students as dropouts who have a certain number of unexplained absences on their record. Others count students as dropouts who join the military. There is some question as to whether a Graduate Equivalency Diploma (GED) is really equivalent of a high school completion, raising the question of whether those who quit high school to acquire GED should be counted as dropouts. Some schools who only account for their students between September and June therefore exclude from their definition of dropout those students who drop out in June, July and August, failing to return in September. (National Education Association, 1991) [GED stands for General Educational Development (certificate) rather than Graduate Equivalence Diploma]

Indeed, sometimes the term is used in professional literature or research writings with no operational definition provided at all.

The annual dropout report prepared by the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) presents dropout rates in three different ways: (1) event rates—the percentage of students who left high school without receiving a diploma within a given year; (2) status rates—the percentage of the population of a given age range who have not finished high school and are not enrolled at a given point in time; and (3) cohort rates—what happens to a single group of students over time (Howley & Huang, 1991).

Using 1980 sophomore cohorts from the High School and Beyond database (a study where approximately 30,000 high school sophomores in 1000 schools were surveyed in 1980 with follow-up surveys of the same students in 1982, 1984, and 1986), McCaul et al. (1992) and Orr (1987) both found that urban rates are about 50 percent higher than rural rates (about 20 percent for rural and suburban and about 30 percent for urban).However, Sherman (1992) taking data from the U. S. Census Bureau for the years 1987-1989 reports the following (p. 113):

Dropout Rates
Rural 13.4%
Metro 12.4%
*City 15.3%
*Suburb 10.3%


He further states that rural dropouts are less likely to return to school or to pursue a General Educational Development (GED) certificate than their urban or suburban counterparts.

Widely varying dropout rates are reported in other studies. For example, Helge (1990) reports rural rates as high as 47 percent, while a Texas Education Agency study (1991) shows that some rural districts have no dropouts. According to Sherman (1987), "In some...rural school districts, dropout rates are between three and four times the national average rate" (p. iv). While recognizing the limitations on making definitive statements about dropout rates, these studies suggest that the range of dropout rates in rural districts is quite wide, suggesting that an overall average rate is of limited value for policy making purposes.

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Published in Rural Students at Risk in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas