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Improving Graduation Results: Strategies for Addressing Today's Needs

By Camilla A. Lehr

Students dropping out of school is one of the most critical problems facing education in this country. Approximately one in eight children in the United States never graduates from high school (Children's Defense Fund, 2001). Many students who leave school without a diploma are students with disabilities. Statistics reported by the U.S. Department of Education show that in 1998-99, the graduation rate among students with disabilities age 14 and older was only 57.4%. Nearly 29% of students with disabilities dropped out of school (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Of the students who dropped out, nearly 28% were students with learning disabilities and 51% were students with emotional/behavioral disturbance. Additionally, the highest rate of dropout by race/ethnicity was 41% for students with disabilities of American Indian/Alaska Native descent.

A variety of national and state-level studies have documented the problem of dropout for students with disabilities for well over a decade. It is clear that far too many youth with disabilities fail to successfully complete school – a situation that significantly limits their future opportunities in accessing postsecondary education and securing meaningful employment. Educators, administrators and policymakers need access to information and evidence-based practices and interventions that can assist them in improving rates of school completion.

An extensive body of research exists in relation to dropout, providing information about theoretical conceptualizations, predictors, and factors associated with dropout. Unfortunately, there are relatively few studies that incorporate strong research or evaluation methodology documenting the effectiveness of interventions on enrollment status (Lehr, Hansen, Sinclair & Christenson, 2003). Although we do not yet have a solid foundation of research on dropout intervention and prevention from which to make conclusive statements, we do have preliminary information that educators, administrators, and policymakers can use to make informed decisions about how to address the problem of dropout and raise graduation rates for students with disabilities. Several key strategies are highlighted below.

Establish Procedures to Accurately Measure Rates of School Completion

Accurate comparisons of dropout or school completion rates over time are essential in order to determine the effectiveness of interventions that are implemented at the school, district or state levels. Historically, comparisons across student subgroups and between districts or states have been difficult because of variation in the definition of dropping out and the calculation of dropout rates (commonly referred to as event, status and cohort rates). When dropout rates are not calculated in similar ways, comparisons may result in faulty interpretations that can influence policy and practice and have serious implications for students with and without disabilities. Additionally, the impact of mobility on the quality of data collected must be considered. The use of misleading codes, as well as inadequate, nonsystematic tracking and accounting procedures for students as they transfer in and out of programs add significantly to the problem of obtaining an accurate picture of the dropout rates. For students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, who are particularly mobile, accurate documentation of exit and entrance into schools over time is especially important.

Target Interventions Based on Multiple Indicators of Risk

Many variables and predictors associated with dropout have been identified in the literature (Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, & Hurley, 2000). These variables have been categorized according to the extent to which they can be influenced to change the trajectory leading to dropout. Status variables are difficult and unlikely to change and include socioeconomic standing, disability or ability level, and family structure. Status variables associated with greater likelihood of dropout for students with disabilities include coming from a low socio-economic background, non-English speaking, or Hispanic background. Alterable variables are more amenable to change and can be influenced by students, parents, educators and community members. Alterable variables associated with increased risk of dropout for students with disabilities include high rates of absenteeism and tardiness, low grades and a history of course failure, limited parental support, low participation in extracurricular activities, alcohol or drug problems, negative attitudes towards school, and failure to move on to the next grade level.

Despite the extensive list of variables and predictors associated with dropout, the presence of one of more of these factors does not mean that a student will leave school early. However, evidence of multiple factors does increase the risk of dropout. The challenge lies in using this information to identify students who are in need of intervention based on efficient and accurate predictors. Selected or indicated interventions can be targeted for students who are placed at risk as noted by the presence of multiple variables.

Implement Interventions Designed to Address Alterable Variables

An understanding of alterable variables associated with dropout can also be used to guide the development of intervention practices and policies that prevent dropout. For example, school policies that push students out of school and are associated with dropout include a) raising standards without provision of supports, b) tracking, c) frequent use of suspension, and d) policies that promote a negative school climate. School-related factors positively associated with school performance and completion rates for students with disabilities include a) providing direct, individualized tutoring and support to complete homework assignments, attend class, and stay focused on school; b) participation in vocational education classes; and c) participation in community work experience programs (Wagner, Blackorby, & Hebbeler, 1993). Interventions that focus on facilitating the variables that have been linked with student engagement (e.g., quality of the student-teacher relationship, effective instructional practices, reciprocal exchange of information between home and school) may in turn raise graduation rates.

Ground Interventions in a Sound Conceptual Understanding of the Process of Dropout

Over the years, we have increased our understanding of the process of dropout. We know that the decision to leave school is typically not an instantaneous event and many students who drop out of school are expressing an extreme form of disengagement from school that is preceded by indicators of withdrawal (e.g., poor attendance) and unsuccessful school experiences (e.g. academic or behavioral difficulties). Furthermore, we know that for many students, the path leading toward school withdrawal begins early, and retrospective studies have shown that dropouts can be identified with reasonable accuracy through review of records from the elementary years. Effective instructional techniques, positive behavioral supports, and other strategies designed to promote positive behavioral and academic outcomes for students in the elementary grades hold promise for decreasing the number of students who later drop out of school. Implementing longitudinal studies to measure the impact of these early interventions on subsequent school completion is critical.

We know that student engagement in school and learning is a key ingredient of school completion. Interventions that promote school completion are characterized by a strength-based orientation, a comprehensive interface of systems (home, school, community), implementation over time, and meeting individual needs through the creation of a person-environment fit (Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, & Hurley, 2000). Interventions to enhance school completion address the core issues associated with student alienation and disengagement from school.

Identify Interventions That Have Evidence of Effectiveness

In some cases, educators, administrators and policymakers may search for an existing intervention program to implement in a local school or system. However, exact adoption may be challenging, and educational researcher James McPartland cautions, "It is unlikely that a program developed elsewhere can be duplicated exactly in another site, because local talents and priorities for school reform, the particular needs and interests of the students to be served, and the conditions of the school to be changed will differç (McPartland, 1994, p.256). In addition, many existing programs and practices lack research or evaluation data documenting effectiveness. Policies directed at implementing large scale programming that have significant associated costs ought to be based on research that is conceptually and methodologically sound. Sometimes, programs are promoted despite a lack of supporting data. It is the responsibility of educators, administrators and policymakers to require that claims be supported by adequate research or evaluation data before adopting a strategy or intervention.

Programs that have been designed to prevent dropout vary widely and it is clear that there is no one right way to intervene. Recent efforts are beginning to focus on identifying key components of programs that facilitate the effectiveness of interventions designed to promote school completion. Additional studies must be conducted to determine if there are critical components unique to fostering school completion for students with disabilities. Identification of these key components will provide additional information to guide the development of interventions, improve the likelihood of successful implementation, and yield increased rates of school completion.



Children's Defense Fund (2001). Twenty-five key facts about American children. Retrieved October 17, 2003 from

Christenson, S. L., Sinclair, M. F., Lehr C. A., & Hurley, C. M. (2000). Promoting successful school completion. In K. M. Minke & G. C. Bear (Eds.), Preventing school problems - Promoting school success (pp. 211-257). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Lehr, C.A., Hansen, A., Sinclair, M.F., & Christenson, S.L. (2003). An integrative review of data based interventions: Moving beyond dropout prevention to school completion. School Psychology Review. 32(3), 342-64.

McPartland, J. M. (1994). Dropout prevention in theory and practice. In R. J. Rossi (Ed.), Schools and students at risk: Context and framework for positive change (pp. 255-276). New York: Teachers College.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. (2001). Twenty-third annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Washington, DC: Author.

Wagner, M., Blackorby, J., & Hebbeler, K. (1993). Beyond the report card: The multiple dimensions of secondary school performance of students with disabilities. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

Camilla A. Lehr is Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. She may be reached at 612/624-0722 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 671 K, 36 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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