Some students at risk are those with special educational needs. For example, they may have learning disabilities or emotional and behavioral problems that interfere with their learning and achievement. Others may be students whose cultural backgrounds don’t mesh easily with the dominant culture at school. Still others may be students from home environments in which academic success is neither supported nor encouraged.

Students at risk come from all socioeconomic levels, but children of poor, single-parent families are especially likely to leave school before high school graduation. Boys are more likely than girls to drop out, and African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are more likely than European American and Asian American students to drop out. Also, students in large cities and rural areas are more likely to drop out than students in the suburbs are; graduation rates in some big cities are less than 40 percent. Students at greatest risk for dropping out are those whose families speak little or no English and whose own knowledge of English is also quite limited (Hardre & Reeve, 2003; L. S. Miller, 1995; National Research Council, 2004; Roderick & Camburn, 1999; Rumberger, 1995; L. Steinberg, Blinde, & Chan, 1984; U.S. Dept. of Education, 1997).

Students at risk, especially those who eventually drop out, typically have some or all of the following characteristics:

  • A history of academic failure.  Students who drop out may have a history of poor academic achievement going back as far as third grade (K. L. Alexander, Entwisle, & Dauber, 1995; Garnier, Stein, & Jacobs, 1997). On average, they have less effective reading and study skills, earn lower grades, obtain lower achievement test scores, and are more likely to have repeated a grade level than their classmates who graduate (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Jozefowicz, Arbreton, Eccles, Barber, & Colarossi, 1994; Raber, 1990; L. Steinberg et al., 1984; Wilkinson & Frazer, 1990).
  • Older age in comparison with classmates.  Because low achievers are more likely to have repeated a grade level, they are often older than their classmates (Raber, 1990; Wilkinson & Frazer, 1990). Some, but not all, research studies find that students who are overage in comparison with classmates are especially prone to dropping out of school (D. C. Gottfredson, Fink, & Graham, 1994; Roderick, 1994; Rumberger, 1995). Quite possibly, school becomes less attractive when students find they must attend class with peers they perceive as less physically and socially mature than they are.
  • Emotional and behavioral problems.  Potential dropouts tend to have lower self-esteem than their more successful classmates have. They also are more apt to create discipline problems in class, use drugs, and engage in criminal activities (Finn, 1991; Garnier et al., 1997; Jozefowicz et al., 1994; Rumberger, 1995; U.S. Dept. of Education, 1992).
  • Frequent interaction with low-achieving peers.  Students who drop out tend to associate with low-achieving, and in some cases antisocial, peers (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Hymel, Comfort, Schonert-Reichl, & McDougall, 1996). Such peers may argue that school is not worthwhile and are likely to distract students’ attention away from academic pursuits.
  • Lack of psychological attachment to school.  Students at risk for academic failure are less likely to identify with their school or to perceive themselves as a vital part of the school community. For example, they engage in few extracurricular activities and are apt to express dissatisfaction with school in general (Christenson & Thurlow, 2004; Hymel et al., 1996; Rumberger, 1995).
  • Increasing disinvolvement with school.  Dropping out is not necessarily an all-or-nothing event. In fact, many high school dropouts show lesser forms of dropping out many years before they officially leave school. Future dropouts are absent from school more frequently than their peers, even in the early elementary grades (Christenson & Thurlow, 2004; Finn, 1989). In addition, they are more likely to have been suspended from school and to show a long-term pattern of dropping out, returning to school, and dropping out again (Raber, 1990).

These characteristics are by no means surefire indicators of which students will drop out, however. For instance, some dropouts come from two-parent, middle-income homes, and some are actively involved in school activities almost until the time they drop out (Hymel et al., 1996; Janosz, Le Blanc, Boulerice, & Tremblay, 2000).

Why Students Drop Out

Students drop out for a variety of reasons. Some have little family and peer encouragement and support for school success. Others have extenuating life circumstances; for example, they may have medical problems, take an outside job to help support the family, or get pregnant. Many simply become dissatisfied with school: They don’t do well in their classes, have trouble getting along with classmates, find the school environment too dangerous or restrictive, or perceive the curriculum to be boring and irrelevant to their needs (Hardre & Reeve, 2003; Portes, 1996; Raber, 1990; Rumberger, 1995; L. Steinberg et al., 1984). Sadly, teacher behaviors can enter into the picture as well, as the following dialogue between an interviewer (Ron) and two at-risk high school students (George and Rasheed) reveals:

Ron:  Why do you think someone drops out of school?

George:  I think people drop out of school cuz of the pressure that school brings them. Like, sometimes the teacher might get on the back of a student so much that the student doesn’t want to do the work. . . . And then that passes and he says, “I’m gonna start doing good. . . .” Then he’s not doing as good as he’s supposed to and when he sees his grade, he’s, “you mean I’m doin’ all that for nothin’? I’d rather not come to school.” . . .

Rasheed:  I think kids drop out of school because they gettin’ too old to be in high school. And I think they got, like, they think it’s time to get a responsibility and to get a job and stuff. And, like George says, sometimes the teachers, you know, tell you to drop out, knowing that you might not graduate anyway.

Ron:  How does a teacher tell you to drop out?

Rasheed:  No, they recommend you take the GED program sometimes. Like, some kids just say, “Why don’t you just take the GED. Just get it over with.” Then, job or something.

Ron:  You talked about a kid being too old. Why is a kid too old?

Rasheed:  Cuz he got left back too many times. (Farrell, 1990, p. 91)