Dropout Factories’ Identified In Hopkins Study
Education News
July 14, 2004
Debra Viadero

A report has flagged 2,000 high schools across the country as potential "dropout factories" because 40 percent or more of their freshmen fail to make it to 12th grade on time.  

A report has flagged 2,000 high schools across the country as potential "dropout factories" because 40 percent or more of their freshmen fail to make it to 12th grade on time.  

Schools with potentially high dropout rates span the nation, according to the study, which was published last month by researchers from the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But most of the schools are in 50 urban areas and 15 Southern and Southwestern states.  

In South Carolina, for instance, such schools make up 50 percent of all high schools, while in Michigan, almost all of the "dropout factories" are concentrated in a few cities.  

Regardless of where they are located, those schools are attended overwhelmingly by African-American and Latino students, the report says. The researchers found that schools where a majority of students were members of minority groups were five times as likely as mostly white schools to be places where students’ chances of reaching 12th grade on time were 50-50 or worse.  

The new study is important, experts said, because it shows the extent of the dropout problem nationwide. Currently, states, school districts, and the federal government all vary in how they count dropouts, leaving a statistical hole in public knowledge on the problem’s scope.  

"This shows there are surprisingly large numbers of schools that have potentially severe dropout problems," said Christopher B. Swanson, a researcher at the Washington-based Urban Institute who has also studied dropouts. Coupled with other recent studies on the issue, he said, the Johns Hopkins report suggests that "graduation rates are probably a lot lower than we think."

Weak ‘Promoting Power’

For their study, the Johns Hopkins researchers collected federal statistics on enrollment, dating back to 1993, for every public high school and vocational high school in the country with 300 or more students. They compared 9th and 10th grade enrollments in those schools with 12th grade enrollments three and four years later. The 2,000 schools they identified as having the weakest "promoting power" were those where only 60 percent or less of the students who started out made it to 12th grade on time.

Though commonly used at district and state levels, this research technique should be used with caution in labeling individual problem schools, said Jay P. Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City.

"Some of these schools may not be the worst graduators, but they may have particularly high numbers of transfer students," he said.

But the Hopkins researchers note that their study is meant to be an indicator of trouble, rather than a direct measure.

"If half your freshmen, or 60 percent or even 70 percent, make it to 12th grade, we’re flagging you as a school with a very high likelihood of having a high dropout rate," said Robert Balfanz, who wrote the report with Nettie Legters.

When policymakers know where problem schools are, he pointed out, they can target their efforts at specific schools to increase graduation rates instead of relying on "blanket reforms" for all schools.

The 15 states the researchers identified with the "worst promoting power" are: Arizona, California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas. Together, they have 80 percent of the high schools likely to produce the highest numbers of dropouts, the study found.

Sixty percent of the high schools with the worst problems were found in large and medium-size cities.

However, in the South, unlike other parts of the country, the "dropout factories" tended to be in rural areas and to enroll more white students. Florida was the only state identified where most of the schools with potentially severe dropout problems had white-majority enrollments.

The researchers also found that the number of schools with weak promoting power has increased by 75 percent since 1993, while the overall number of high schools over the same period grew by only 8 percent.