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Early indicators of students at risk of dropping out of high school
Who drops out?
Dropping out of high school can best be described as a process, rather than as a decision taken at a single point in time. The earlier the risk of dropping out can be detected, the greater the likelihood of prevention.
Recent analysis of data from the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) contributes to our understanding of the complex process of dropping out.1 YITS collected information from 15-year-olds in 2000 and returned to interview the same young adults again at age 17 in 2002. By then, some had dropped out of school. This article summarizes the analysis that compared dropouts to high school continuers and graduates (considered as one group) on a range of characteristics at age 15. The purpose of the analysis was to identify early indicators that a student might be at risk of dropping out by the age of 17.
Among 17-year-olds, there was little difference in the dropout rate for young men and young women in 2001. However, evidence for 20-year-olds suggests not only that dropout rates rise with age, but that they tend to be significantly higher for males compared to females. In 1999, for example, the dropout rate for 20-year-old males was 15% versus 9% for females.2When asked their main reason for leaving school, the 3% of 17-year-olds who had dropped out cited school-related reasons most frequently for their early departure. School-related reasons include being bored or not interested in school, problems with school work and with teachers, being “kicked out of” school and missing a few credits/not worth continuing. While both males and females cited school-related reasons most frequently, females were much more likely to also cite personal or family reasons (including health reasons, pregnancy/caring for own child and problems at home) for leaving school whereas males were more likely to report work-related factors (wanting or having to work).
Figure 1: Main reason for dropping out of high school by age 17Notes:
As a measure of sampling error:
* indicates a coefficient of variation (CV) between 16.6% and 25%
** indicates a CV greater than 25% and less or equal to 33.3%
*** indicates a CV greater than 33.3%. Caution should be used when interpreting these results.
Source: Human Resources Development Canada and Statistics Canada, 2002. At a Crossroads: First results for the 18 to 20-Year-old Cohort of the Youth in Transition Survey. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-591-XIE.Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed 15-year-old Canadian youth’s achievement in reading, mathematics and science. Reading literacy is of particular interest because of its positive link with educational attainment.3 In PISA, reading literacy was defined as “understanding, using and reflecting on written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society.”3
At age 15, the average reading score of dropouts was significantly lower than that of other students. On average, dropouts were performing a full reading proficiency level below continuers and graduates. A difference of one proficiency level can be considered as comparatively large and indicates a real difference in the nature of reading literacy tasks that students can perform.Reading literacy is one measure of achievement; marks obtained in school is another. On average, dropouts reported much lower marks than other students at age 15. Thirty-two percent of dropouts reported an overall mark of less than 59, compared to eight percent of other students. Nevertheless, more than a third of dropouts reported having marks of 70 or higher at age 15, meaning that many were doing well enough in school to expect to graduate.
While most youth had a positive self-image, dropouts demonstrated lower levels across all three dimensions at the age of 15 than did those who continued on with their schooling. Twenty-five percent of dropouts reported low levels of self-efficacy compared to 15% of other youth. Similarly, dropouts were more likely to report low self-esteem and low self-mastery, 22% and 20% respectively, compared with 16% and 14% of continuers and graduates.
Dropouts differed significantly from other youth with respect to how much importance they felt their parents placed on graduating from high school and obtaining more education after high school. In particular, compared to continuers and graduates, dropouts tended to underestimate the importance their parents placed on postsecondary education.When 15-year-olds were asked to think about education in conjunction with their future career plans, dropouts once again differed significantly from continuers and graduates. While more than half of the dropouts agreed that education plays a role in future success, a lower proportion of dropouts than other youth acknowledged the importance of education in meeting their career goals. Dropouts were also more sceptical about their chances of success in postsecondary education. For example, while 81% of continuers and graduates thought they were “smart enough” to do well in university, a significantly lower proportion of dropouts felt the same way (64%).
Dropouts were also more likely to have broken rules at home. More than half of dropouts (57%) had stayed out later than their parents had permitted 3 times or more during the year compared to 42% of other youth. Moreover, 24% of dropouts had stayed out all night without permission 3 times or more while 9% of continuers or graduates had done so.
Dropouts were much more likely than continuers and graduates to report that their friends engaged in negative behaviours. When compared to the proportion of continuers or graduates (12%), more than double the proportion of dropouts (29%) reported that most or all of their friends skipped class once a week or more. In addition, more than half of the dropouts reported having a friend who was also a dropout, compared to 20% of continuers and graduates. Finally, 25% of dropouts compared to 9% of continuers or graduates said that most or all of their friends had a reputation for causing trouble.
This difference in engagement extends beyond school life. Dropouts were less likely than others to participate in non-school sports, arts, drama or music lessons or non-school clubs and they were less likely to be involved in volunteer activities, such as canvassing, coaching or fundraising at the age of 15.
The research finds that it is the number of hours worked that matters. Students who worked a moderate number of hours (up to 19 hours per week) were least likely to drop out, while those at the two extremes, working either 20 hours or more or not at all, were more likely to do so. At the age of 15, similar percentages of dropouts and other students worked while in school (73% and 68%). However, dropouts were much more likely to work over 20 hours per week than were other students (30% compared to 15%).
On all three indicators of school climate, dropouts saw their environments in a less positive light. At age 15, 49% of dropouts felt that discipline was not handled fairly in their school; only 34% of continuers and graduates felt the same way. Dropouts were also more likely to feel that students were not respected and that their school was not a friendly place.
Female dropouts were also less likely to report having been in trouble at school and compared to male dropouts, lower proportions of female dropouts had close friends with reputations for causing trouble or who encouraged negative behaviour. In addition, female dropouts had better grades, were more academically engaged in school and had higher average reading scores than male dropouts.
By the age of 15, more than a quarter of 17-year-old dropouts had already planned not to stay in high school until graduation and another one in five had reported “I don’t know” when asked if they were planning to stay in school. Higher proportions of 15-year-olds who were later to become dropouts were not academically engaged in school and they tended to be less involved socially as well, both in school activities and in a range of activities outside of school.Dropouts were also more likely to exhibit negative behaviours both in and out of school. They were more likely to skip class, to have been to the principal for causing trouble at school and to have been kicked out of school. They were more likely to have broken rules at home as well and they tended to have friends who shared these behaviours.
Generally, the school experience of female dropouts tended to be more positive than that of males. The reasons they gave for dropping out tended to be very different as well, with females being much more likely cite personal or family reasons (including health reasons, pregnancy/caring for own child and problems at home) for leaving school.While a relatively small percentage of students had dropped out of high school by the age of 17 in 2001, this group represents many thousands of young people. Data for 20-year-olds in 1999 suggest that the dropout rate rises past the age of 17. This means that the 17-year-olds dropouts described here represent only the first wave, with others likely to follow.
Completing high school is now widely considered to be the minimal educational requirement for success in the labour market and for accessing lifelong learning. Identifying the early signs that a student may be at risk of dropping out can make a contribution toward ensuring that all students have access to opportunities for decent jobs and to further education past the high school level.
Source: project, Statistics Canada.