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Why Do Students Drop Out of School?

Painting a picture of a "typical" high school dropout is not an easy task. However, researchers from the Center for Social Organization of Schools and Johns Hopkins University, identified four categories under which nearly all reasons for students dropping out fit into. The "four broad classes of dropouts" comes directly from the work of Robert Balfanz. It is described in the paper "What Your Community Can Do to End Its Dropout Crisis: Learning From Research and Practice".

  1. Life Events
    Students who dropout because of something that happens outside of school—they become pregnant, get arrested or have to work to support members of their family.
  2. Fade Outs
    Students who have generally been promoted on time from grade to grade and may even have above grade level skills but at some point become frustrated or bored and stop seeing a reason for coming to school. Once they reach the legal dropout age they leave, convinced that they can find their way without a high school diploma or that a GED will serve them just as well.
  3. Push Outs
    Students who are or who are perceived to be difficult, dangerous or detrimental to the success of the school and are subtly or not so subtly encouraged to withdrawal from the school, transfer to another school, or are simply dropped from the rolls if they fail too many courses or miss too many days of school and are past (or in some cases not even past) the legal dropout age.
  4. Failing to Succeed
    Students who fail to succeed in school and attend schools that fail to provide them with the environments and supports they need to succeed. For some, initial failure is the result of poor academic preparation, for others, it is rooted in unmet social-emotional needs. Few students drop out after their initial experience with failure. In fact, most persist for years, only dropping out after they fall so far behind that success seems impossible or they are worn down by repeated failure. In the meantime, they are literally waving their hands saying "help" through poor attendance, acting out and/or course failure

Collecting the Data

At CDE we do not collect data on why students dropout. With nearly 14, 000 students per year dropping out, it would be nearly impossible to locate and survey these students. There are other, more effective ways that we can collect this data at the school and district level. Robert Balfanz recommends surveying students on the reasons that they are truant. He states, "This year’s dropout is last year’s truant".

Despite the fact that we do not have this data available at the state level; what data we do have available answers this question reasonably well when asked of the from the GED test-taker demographic.

Analyzing the Data

Using the most current data collection, we are in the process of analyzing the data to see what happens to students after they dropout. For example, in a four year time span, we would like to know which students re-enter another educational institution in Colorado, which students graduate, which students receive their GED and which students do not show up at all. Understanding this will help us to determine a "persistence rate" for students at a certain school or district. Then we can learn from the districts that have the best persistence rates for their students and see what they are modeling and how they are teaching their students. This will help us with our Student Re-engagement efforts

We borrowed some data from the GED State Administrator and took a look at what is provided by NRSpro on students 16 to 21 years old who took the GED test in the state of Colorado during the years 2008 and 2009 ( a total of 15, 341). We compared the reasons giving for dropping out of school to the four reasons defined by Balfanz. Students were required to self-report answers to questions about why they dropped out of school. "Reasons for not completing school" were broken down into four sections:

  1. Family
  2. Social
  3. Academic Environment
  4. Student Performance


In the Family section, students reported "reasons for not completing high school" as (17.7%) got a job, (14.4%) needed money to help out at home, (12.6%) Got pregnant or made someone pregnant. These circumstances would fall under Life Events according to Balfanz.


In the Social section, an overwhelming majority (35%) stated that they didn’t complete high school because they "weren’t happy in school". Most likely, these students were lacking a connection with someone (teacher or caring adult) or something (class or afterschool activity).

Academic Environment

Similarly, under Academic Environment, 39.7 % stated that they left because they did not like school or (33.8%) were bored. These reasons given by GED test-takers could be considered Fade Outs.

Student Performance

Listed as a reason for not completing school under Student Performance was that (41.7%) the student was absent too many times. Following closely behind as a reason was (33.6%) had trouble with math. These responses could be interpreted as either Fade Outs or Failing to Succeed.


(For a full demographic report on students taking the GED test 16-21 years old during years 2008 and 2009, please see Appendix)

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