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Early indicators of students at risk of dropping out of high school

Who drops out?
Family background
Characteristics of peers
Engagement and school climate
Working while in high school
School climate
Gender differences among dropouts

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.

Who drops out?

In May 2000, over 345,000 Canadian 15-year-olds were enrolled in school, most of them in Grade 10. In December 2001, at the age of seventeen, most (83%) were still in high school, while some had graduated (14%). Just 3% of these young adults had left high school without a diploma. Although the percentage of dropouts appears low at this young age, it is estimated that it represents over 9,000 youth who had left high school by age 17 without receiving a high school diploma.

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.2

When 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 17

Figure 1. Main reason for dropping out of high school by age 17 Notes:
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.

Family background

Students who dropped out by age 17 had a somewhat different background from those who stayed in school or who had graduated from high school. While the majority of 17-year-olds lived in two-parent households, a higher proportion of dropouts (28%) than continuers and graduates (16%) lived with a single parent. When compared to continuers and graduates, a smaller proportion of dropouts had parents who had completed some form of post-secondary education (43% versus 64%) while a larger proportion tended to live in households with lower incomes (average household income of $51,000 versus $69,000).


In 2000, in conjunction with YITS, the 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.


How one feels about oneself may also provide insights into the factors associated with leaving school. Do those who leave school have lower levels of self-confidence, do they have less confidence in their ability to achieve and are they less likely to feel a sense of control over situations? In YITS terms, these concepts translate into measures of self-esteem, self-efficacy and self-mastery.

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.


A relatively high proportion of dropouts had high educational aspirations – 59% aspired to college or university, compared to 87% of continuers and graduates. Nevertheless, close to one-quarter of those who dropped out by age 17 reported at age 15 that a high school diploma or less was their highest educational aspiration. This contrasts strongly with youth who were still in school or who had graduated by age 17; at age 15, only 7% of these youth said high school or less was what they wanted.

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%).


While not all dropouts engaged in problem behaviour, the dropout literature suggests that such behaviour can precede leaving school. Confirming this view, the YITS data indicate that a higher proportion of dropouts than continuers or graduates had been “kicked out of school” — 28% versus 7%. Furthermore, a higher proportion of dropouts had skipped class once a week or more (23% versus 6%) or had seen their principal 3 times or more during the year because of causing trouble at school (29% versus 8%).

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.

Characteristics of peers

Youth were asked about the educational aspirations of their friends. Compared to continuers and graduates, a lower proportion of dropouts reported that most or all of their friends felt that completing high school was important (65% versus 86%), that furthering education after high school was important (54% versus 79%) and that it was “okay” to work hard at school (50% versus 71%).

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.

Engagement and school climate

Are youth who participate in, and identify with, their school environment less likely to drop out? To measure school engagement, students at age 15 were asked a series of questions aimed at gauging participation in, and identification with, school. School engagement includes engagement in both the academic life of the school (reflected in, for example, the number of hours spent on homework, completion of school assignments and feelings about the value of education) and the social life of the school (for example, feelings of belonging, having friends for support and making friends easily). Youth who had dropped out by the age of 17 had been much less engaged in school when they were 15 – both socially and academically – than were those who had either continued in school or had already graduated.

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.

Working while in high school

Early labour market participation by students is often seen as a means to gain valuable exposure to the culture and context of work. This experience may generate long-term benefits such as smoother transitions from school to full-time work, practical skill development and higher future earnings. However, there also may be costs involved. For example, working while still in high school has been linked to poor academic performance, disengagement from school and dropping out.

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%).

School climate

School climate refers to a range of features specific to the school environment, including how students are disciplined at school, whether the school is, on balance, a friendly place and whether people respect one another and are accepted.

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.

Gender differences among dropouts

Although the dropout rate was similar for 17-year-old males and females, female dropouts differed significantly from males on a number of dimensions. Unlike male dropouts, female dropouts perceived postsecondary education quite positively at age 15 and a higher proportion of them aspired to college or university and thought that they would enjoy it. In addition, more female dropouts (56%) than male dropouts (44%) reported that their parents thought a postsecondary education was very important.

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.


If dropping out is indeed a process, these findings indicate that disengagement from school is underway by the age of 15 or earlier for many who have dropped out by age 17. While some students who later drop out are struggling with school material at age 15, others in fact perform reasonably well in school, certainly well enough to be able to expect to succeed through subsequent years to graduation. Similarly, some have a poor self-image, but many others do not differ in this respect from other students who are still in school or who have graduated by age 17. In other respects, however, the differences between dropouts and other students are larger.

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.


  1. See Statistics Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2004. In and out of high school: First results from the second cycle of the Youth in Transition Survey, 2002. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE2004014, free.
  2. 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.
  3. Analysis of prose literacy data from the Adult Literacy Survey shows that high school and postsecondary graduates possess higher literacy skills than high school dropouts. See Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Statistics Canada, 2000, Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey. Paris: OECD
Table 4: Leavers in Registered Apprenticeship Training by Major Trade Groups, 1991 to 2003
Building Con-struction trades Elec-trical, Elec- trical and Related Food and Service trades Indus-trial and Related Mech-anical Metal Fabri-cating trades Motor Vehicle and Heavy Equip-ment Other Total
1991 2,758 3,197 1,606 754 3,481 3,903 357 16,056
1992 6,720 3,661 1,488 1,089 4,845 4,441 255 22,499
1993 5,654 2,771 1,339 929 3,377 3,624 261 17,955
1994 5,201 2,992 1,749 988 3,662 3,915 282 18,789
1995 4,898 2,722 1,149 673 3,072 2,978 249 15,741
1996 4,570 2,980 1,767 1,065 3,435 3,447 339 17,603
1997 4,643 2,699 1,958 1,148 3,461 3,939 375 18,223
1998 4,093 2,535 1,811 888 3,261 4,113 387 17,088
1999 4,799 2,663 2,075 1,134 3,595 4,149 544 18,959
2000 5,118 2,440 1,934 1,322 4,546 4,232 396 19,988
2001 5,107 2,496 2,016 1,115 3,584 4,021 457 18,796
2002 5,797 2,806 1,999 1,273 4,550 4,098 521 21,044
2003 7,024 3,334 3,765 1,822 5.613 5,609 799 27,966
Source: project, Statistics Canada.

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