• by Roy Johnson, M.S. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1998 • Roy L. Johnson, M.A.

Four out of every 10 students from the freshman class of 1994-95 left school prior to their 1997-98 graduation from Texas public high schools. Research from the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) shows that 150,965 students (42 percent) of the state’s 1994-95 freshman class were lost from public school enrollment by 1997-98.

Longitudinally, the attrition rate (the percent of students lost from enrollment) in Texas public high schools has increased by nine percentage points (27.3 percent) in 12 years from 1985-86 (33 percent) to 1997-98 (42 percent).

The 1985-86 school year marked the initial year that IDRA conducted the state’s first comprehensive assessment of the status of the dropout problem in Texas public schools. Twelve years following the release of its first report in October 1986, IDRA continues to document the number and percent of the state’s students who leave school prior to graduation.

To follow are the findings of IDRA’s 11th annual attrition study, which presents data for the 1997-98 school year by statewide total, by county, and by race and ethnicity. This article also presents various national and state dropout statistics from such agencies as the Texas Education Agency (TEA), the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Hispanic Dropout Project.

The Dropout Problem

We view education as a significant key to the doors of opportunities for the young people of today. It can unlock access to higher learning, better jobs, higher wages and future success. The possession of a high school diploma (or its equivalent) does not ensure easy access to higher education or well-paying jobs, but it does enhance young people’s opportunities to obtain them. Research has shown that students who do not graduate from high school make up a larger proportion of those who are unemployed, those who earn lower wages, those who receive public assistance and those who are in prison.

Despite the promise of a high school credential, far too many young people are leaving school prior to graduation, particularly those who are minority, who are economically disadvantaged, and who speak a language other than English. High school dropouts face a difficult climb in making the transition from high school to future schooling and financial success. The personal, social and economic costs of dropping out of school have increased in the last few decades in terms of the educational and economic difficulties faced by school dropouts and the society at large. The number of students receiving alternative high school credentials by passing the General Education Development (GED) tests has increased dramatically; however, these alternatives have not been shown to be as effective in opening the doors of opportunity as is a high school diploma.

Findings of IDRA’s Latest Attrition Analyses

The latest IDRA attrition study reveals some alarming facts. Major findings for 1997-98 include the following.

  • Four of every 10 students enrolled in the ninth grade in Texas public schools during the 1994-95 school year did not reach the 12th grade in 1997-98. Of the 1994-95 freshman class members, 150,965 students (42 percent) were lost from public school enrollment by 1997-98. (see the statewide attrition data table.)
  • Racial and ethnic minority group students were more likely than White students to be lost from public school enrollment in 1997-98. Fifty-three percent of Hispanic students and 49 percent of Black students were lost from public school enrollment, compared to 31 percent of White students. Hispanic students were 1.7 times more likely than White students to leave school before graduation, while Black students were 1.6 times more likely than White students to leave school before completing high school.
  • More males than females were lost from public high school enrollment. Between 1994-95 and 1997-98, 45 percent of males were lost from public high school enrollment, compared to 38 percent of females.
  • The percent of students lost from public high school enrollment has increased by 27.3 percent between the 1985-86 school year (33 percent of students) and the 1997-98 school year (42 percent of students). The number of students lost through attrition has increased from about 86,000 in 1985-86 to almost 151,000 in 1997-98.

Longitudinal statewide attrition rates are categorized by race and ethnicity. Statewide and county attrition rates are presented for the three major race and ethnicity groups.

Findings of the National Center for Education Statistics

The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the principal federal agency responsible for the collection, analysis and reporting of data on the condition of education in the United States. In 1989, NCES released its first annual report on school dropouts under the mandates of the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvements Amendment of 1988 (Public Law 100-297). The reporting of dropout statistics is no longer required by law, but NCES continues to track the number and percent of school dropouts among US secondary school students. Dropout data from NCES examines rates within racial and ethnic groups, across gender groups, and across states and geographical regions.

In order to provide a comprehensive perspective of the dropout problem, NCES provides three types of dropout rates: (1) event dropout rates, (2) status dropout rates and (3) cohort dropout rates. Additionally, NCES provides data on high school graduation and completion rates. NCES defines the various types of dropout rates as follows.

  • Event rates describe the proportion of students who leave school each year without completing a high school program. This type of dropout rate describes the number and percent of students who drop out of school on an annual basis.
  • Status rates provide cumulative data on dropouts among young adults within a specified age range (e.g., 15-24 years of age, 16-24 years of age or 18-24 years of age). These rates, which are higher than event rates because they include all dropouts, reveal the extent of the dropout problem in the population.
  • Cohort rates measure what happens to a cohort of students over a period of time. Furthermore, these rates provide repeated measures of a group of students starting at a specific grade level over time. These rates provide longitudinal data on a specific group of students, including background and contextual data.
  • High school completion rates describe the proportion of students who receive a high school diploma and/or alternative methods of school completion, namely the GED certificate.

In December 1997, NCES released its ninth annual report on school dropouts entitled Dropout Rates in the United States, 1996 (1997). The report provides state and regional dropout data and examines high school completion rates. Major findings of the NCES report are presented below.

Event (Annual) Dropout Rates

  • Five percent of young people ages 15 through 24 years dropped out of school in 1996. This rate is on a par with those reported over the last 10 years.
  • A larger percentage of Hispanic students (9 percent), compared with White students (4.1 percent) and Black students (6.7 percent), leave school short of completing a high school program.
  • In 1996, young adults living in families with incomes in the lowest 20 percent of all family incomes were five times as likely as their peers from families in the top 20 percent of the income distribution to drop out of high school.
  • Although dropout rates were highest among students age 19 or older, about three-fourths of the current year’s dropouts were ages 15 through 18. Moreover, 43 percent of the 1996 dropouts were 15 through 17 years of age.

Status Dropout Rates

  • In October 1996, some 3.6 million young adults were not enrolled in a high school program and had not completed high school. These youth accounted for 11.1 percent of the 32.4 million 16- through 24-year-olds in the United States in 1996.
  • There are still differences in the levels of the status dropout rates of White young adults (7.3 percent), Black young adults (13 percent) and Hispanic young adults (29.4 percent). However, over the past quarter century the gap between the rates for Black young adults and White young adults has narrowed (see Figure 4).
  • Over the last 25 years, close to one-third of the 16- through 24-year-old Hispanic young adults were reported as “out of school” and lacking a high school credential.
  • Forty-four percent of Hispanic young adults born outside of the 50 states and the District of Columbia are counted as high school dropouts.
  • In 1996, youths from families with the lowest incomes were nearly eight times more likely to be dropouts (22.1 percent) than those from families with the highest incomes (2.6 percent).
  • The status dropout rates in the South (13.0 percent) and West (13.9 percent) regions of the country are one and one-half times those in the Northeast (8.3 percent) and Midwest (7.7 percent) regions.

Cohort Dropout Rates

  • The cohort dropout rates for the eighth-grade class of 1988 show that by the spring of 1992, 10.8 percent of the 1988 cohort of eighth graders were out of school and had not completed a high school program. By August 1994, 7.2 percent of the cohort remained as dropouts.
  • Across race and ethnicity groups, the cohort dropout rates for the 1988 cohort of eighth graders was 17.8 percent for Hispanic students, compared to 9.1 percent for White students and 13.4 percent for Black students. By August 1994, the cohort rate for Hispanic students was 14.3 percent, compared to 5.7 percent for White students and 8.4 percent for Black students.

High School Completion Rates

  • In 1996, about 86 percent of all 18- through 24-year-olds not still enrolled, had completed a high school program.
  • White young adults and Black young adults registered increases in high school completion rates during the 1970s and 1980s, with 1996 rates of 91.5 percent for White youths and 83 percent for Black youths. Hispanic young adults have not shared in this improvement, with only about 62 percent reported as having completed high school by 1996.
  • Of young adults in families with high incomes, 96.9 percent held high school credentials in 1996, while only about three-quarters of youths from low-income families reached this goal (74.5 percent).
  • During the 1990s, the percent of young adults, not still enrolled, holding a high school credential has remained relatively unchanged; however, the percent holding an alternative certification has doubled from 4.9 percent in 1990 to 9.8 percent in 1996.

Findings in the National Education Goals Report

The 1997 National Education Goals Report is the seventh in a series of reports designed to measure the progress made by the nation and states in achieving the eight national education goals (1997). Goal 2: School Completion states, “By the year 2000, the high school completion rate will increase to at least 90 percent.” This goal promotes the reduction of the dropout rate by increasing the percent of young adults who complete a high school education. The major findings in this report include the following.

  • In 1990, 86 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds had completed a high school credential. By 1996, the overall completion rate had not increased. The proportion of young adults who completed an alternative credential was twice as large as it was in 1990 (4.2 percent compared to 9.8 percent).
  • Disparities in high school completion rates between White and minority adults did not improve between 1990 and 1996. The gap between Hispanic and White 18- to 24-year-olds was 31 percent in 1990 and 30 percent in 1996; the gap between Black and White youths was 6 percent in 1990 and 9 percent in 1996.

Findings of the Hispanic Dropout Project

The Hispanic Dropout Project was established by the US Department of Education in September 1995. Its mission was to shed light on the high dropout rates of Hispanic youth and to provide recommendations to reduce the nation’s dropout rate among Hispanic students. Major findings from the project’s study include the following (1996).

  • Hispanics were about one of every 10 Americans in 1990 – and may be one out of every five in 2050.
  • Hispanic status dropout rates (31 percent) are highest for foreign-born students (43 percent).
  • The dropout rate for Hispanic male and female students is similar.
  • The dropout rates of our nation’s Hispanic students are diverse: 12 percent for South American students, 14 percent for Cuban American students, 23 percent for Puerto Rican students born in the United States, 26 percent for Dominican American students, 31 percent for Puerto Rican students born in Puerto Rico, 34 percent for Mexican American students and 36 percent for Central American students. The rate for Mexican American students is three times greater than the national average (10.5 percent).
  • Hispanic students in the 19- to 20-year-old age group in 1992 had low high school completion rates (65 percent) as compared to Whites (91 percent), Blacks (81 percent), and all race and ethnicities (87 percent).
  • From 1980 to 1986, 36 percent of Hispanic students who dropped out returned and completed high school, compared to 48 percent of White students and 49 percent of Black students.
  • Hispanic students are leaving school early. In 1993, 58 percent of Hispanic status dropouts had less than a 10th grade education.
  • In 1993, Hispanic dropout rates were about double those of other US youth at every income level.
  • The dropout rate for Hispanic students is highest for low-income students.
  • Two in five Hispanic children live in poverty – twice the poverty rate for all children.
  • Hispanic students and Black students are more likely than White students to cite family-related factors as reasons for dropping out of school.

Findings of the Annie E. Casey Foundation

The Annie E. Casey Foundation produces the Kids Count Data Book as a national and state-by-state effort to track the status of children in the United States (1997). This annual publication measures the educational, social, economic and physical well-being of children through 10 state-level indicators: (1) percent of low-birth-weight babies; (2) infant mortality rates; (3) child death rates; (4) rates of teen deaths by accident, homicide and suicide; (5) teen birth rates; (6) juvenile violent crime arrest rates; (7) percent of teens who are high school dropouts; (8) percent of teens not attending school and not working; (9) percent of children in poverty; and (10) percent of families with children headed by a single parent. In compiling its report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation uses data from federal sources such as the US Census Bureau and NCES. Current and past findings for indicators dealing with school dropouts include some significant statistics featured below.

Percent of Teens Who Are High School Dropouts

  • School dropouts are about three times more likely to live in poverty than high school graduates. Between 1992 and 1993, 5.1 percent of high school dropouts were living in poverty, compared to 1.8 percent of those youth who had at least a high school diploma.
  • Nationwide, 9 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 were dropouts in 1994, compared to 11 percent in 1985. During this same period, the rate of dropouts rose in eight states and remained constant in eight other states.
  • In 1994, the high school dropout rate ranged from a low of 3 percent in Connecticut to a high of 13 percent in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and West Virginia.

Percent of Teens Not Attending School and Not Working

  • Between 1985 (11 percent) and 1994 (9 percent), there was a small decline in the share of 16- to 19-year-olds not attending school and not working.
  • In 1994, the percent of teens not in school and not working ranged from a low of 4 percent in Connecticut to a high of 17 percent in West Virginia.

Findings of the Texas Education Agency

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) is charged with compiling, analyzing and publishing dropout information reported by Texas public school districts. According to the data that TEA has collected from school districts, the number of dropouts has steadily declined over the last seven years, from 91,307 in 1987-88 to 29,207 in 1995-96 (1997). TEA reports that the dropout rate has declined from 6.7 percent in 1987-88 to 1.8 percent in 1995-96.


altThe dropout problem is an old problem that still needs to be remedied. Despite the collection and reporting of dropout information, many feel that the rate of attrition in the nation’s schools, and in the state of Texas in particular, has not made a satisfactory improvement. Nationally, we hope to increase the graduation rate to 90 percent, but for years we have been stuck on about 86 percent of our students completing high school. Over the past few years, the numbers of students receiving a GED has steadily increased. But a high school diploma holds much more potential for unlocking doors of educational, social and economic success for our students than does a GED.

The vast amount of data continues to tell us that the problem has not been remedied, and the signs are that they will not be solved in the immediate future. We must no longer remain in a state of denial about the severity of the problem and the refusal to take the actions necessary to reduce the number of students who leave school prior to graduation. We must ensure that we provide quality educational programs for all students and incorporate procedures to identify and recover students who leave school prior to graduation.


Annie E. Casey Foundation. Kids Count Data Book: State Profile of Child Well-Being (Baltimore, Maryland: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1997).

National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 1997 (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1997).

National Center for Education Statistics. Dropout Rates in the United States, 1996 (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, December 1997).

Texas Education Agency. 1995-96 Report on Public School Dropouts (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, September 1997).

US Department of Education. Hispanic Dropout Project: Data Book (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Education, 1996).

US Department of Education. The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 1997).

Roy Johnson, MS, is a senior research associate in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1998 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.]