• Roy Johnson, M.S. • IDRA Newsletter • November-December 2021 •

Conclusive evidence of the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on attrition and dropout rates is still scant. Stakeholders from every segment of society (legislators, educators, researchers, parents, community members and students) express concerns about how closures and learning disruptions were exacerbated by inequities in access to digital and remote learning.

IDRA’s analyses of attrition rate data for the 2020-21 school year based on fall 2020 enrollment data show that the overall attrition rate declined by 1 percentage point from 2019-20.

This year’s study is the 36th in a series of annual reports on trends in dropout and attrition rates in Texas public high schools. IDRA’s latest study found that 19% of the freshman class of 2017-18 left school prior to graduating in the 2020-21 school year.

Almost four decades ago, IDRA conducted the first-ever comprehensive study of school dropouts in Texas. IDRA developed a now industry-wide attrition methodology to calculate the number and percent of high school students leaving school prior to graduating with a high school diploma. This made it possible to measure a class of students over time, since schools lose a number of students before their senior year. The 2020-21 statewide attrition rate of 19% is 14 percentage points lower than the initial rate of 33% found in IDRA’s landmark 1985-86 study.

COVID-19 Impact on School Enrollment and Attendance

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted students’ school attendance, engagement, participation and learning. In March 2020 most schools in Texas shifted from in-person instruction to remote learning for the 2019-20 school year. The shift to remote learning in its variety of forms brought attention to digital divide and access to education technologies (i.e., home Internet access) particularly for economically-disadvantaged, special education and emergent bilingual populations. Debates on school reopening continued the next school year as the virus surged and receded.

IDRA’s latest study found that 19% of the freshman class of 2017-18 left school prior to graduating in the 2020-21 school year…There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted students’ school attendance, engagement, participation and learning.

Strong evidence is not yet available to assess the full impact of COVID-19 on attrition and school dropout rates, particularly since the crisis is still not over. Some researchers speculate that the school closures and instruction disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have some serious implications for school dropout rates (Klein, 2020; Margolius, et al., 2020; De La Rosa, 2020).

In a national study for America’s Promise Alliance, Margolius, et al., found that the pandemic had a negative impact on learning time, emotional health and social connection. The study found that over one quarter of student respondents reported that they felt disconnected to school adults (29%), classmates (23%) and their school community (22%).

During the summer and fall of 2020, IDRA worked with four high school and college students as they led a participatory action research project. The study showed that three out of four students reported struggling with mental wellness issues (Campos, et al., 2021).

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has conducted intermediatory data collection to better understand the COVID-19 impact on student enrollment trends. In March 2021, TEA released summary data of school enrollment by grade for October 2019 (pre-COVID-19), October 2020 and January 2021 (during COVID-19). These summaries show that overall enrollment was lower in January 2021 than in October 2019, but enrollment increased between October 2020 and January 2021.

The grades with the highest decreases from October 2019 to October 2020 were at the early grades. At the high school grade levels, only ninth grade had a decline in enrollment across the three periods. Enrollment in 10th through 12th grades had increased enrollments from October 2019 to October 2020 and January 2021.

IDRA Study Highlights

Key findings from IDRA’s latest attrition study include the following:

  • The overall Texas public school attrition rates have steadily declined over the past two decades, usually a 1 percentage point decrease annually.
  • Strong evidence is not yet available to assess the full impact of COVID-19on attrition and school dropout rates.
  • The attrition rates of all race-ethnicity groups have declined from the initial study to the latest.
  • The attrition gap between white students and students of color still persists.

IDRA will publish the full 2020-21 study online in January 2022.


Campos, J., Cruz, M., Peña Soto, A., Rasul, F., & Ramón, A. (August 2021). Student Reflections on Schooling During COVID-19 – Student-Led Research Project Explores Effects of the Pandemic on Students and Schooling. IDRA.

De La Rosa, S. (September 21, 2020). Ed experts fear rise in dropouts as remote learning continues, Education Dive.

Klein, R. (September 18, 2020). Experts Predict a Big Increase in High School Dropouts Is on the Horizon, Huffington Post.

Margolius, M., Doyle Lynch, A., Pufall Jones, E., & Hynes, M. (2020). The State of Young People During COVID-19: Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey of High School Youth. America’s Promise Alliance.

TEA. (March 2021). Summary of Texas Public Schools Student Enrollment Trends. Texas Education Agency.

Roy L. Johnson, M.S., is IDRA’s director of research and evaluation. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at roy.johnson@idra.org.

[©2021, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2021 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]