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Addressing the Dilemma of High School Dropouts with LD

Written by Martha Thurlow, Director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes | May 1, 2012

Dropping out of high school has negative consequences for most students, but they may be even more severe for students with learning disabilities (LD).

My colleague, David R. Johnson, and I prepared a recent report focused on the dropout dilemma for special education students, including those with LD. We explored the varying definitions of “dropout,” the incidence of dropping out among special education students compared to their peers, and the consequences of dropping out. We also identified approaches and programs that have been shown to promote school completion and reduce the dropout rate.

Accurately counting dropouts is a challenge. Schools vary in the number of days that they require a student to be out of school before being considered a dropout. Formulas created by federal agencies and states have varied in the past, but there is a push now to ensure that a common formula is used. This will promote more accurate accounting of the number of students with disabilities who drop out of school.

Differences between dropout rates for special education students and other students have decreased over time. This change is thought to be due to a slight increase in the percentage of students without disabilities dropping out, and a decrease in the percentage of special education students dropping out.

We found in our work that dropout data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Services show different rates for students with different disabilities. These data are for students who are 14-21 years old combined. Although students with LD don’t show the highest dropout rates (they’re surpassed by students with emotional disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and multiple disabilities), their rates are higher — 14.7% — than those of students with other types of disability.

In our paper, we identified some of the negative consequences for special education students who drop out of school. Consider this:

  • Special education students who drop out are four times less likely to enroll in higher education compared to those who graduate.
  • Criminal activity and incarceration rates are higher for dropouts. A high percentage of individuals in correctional institutions are high school dropouts who received special education services while in school.
  • Young adults who dropped out of school tend to rely more on family members for financial and social support.

We also discovered that special education students who dropped out were more likely to have experienced high absenteeism, low grades, high mobility rates (both from school to school and from district to district), problem behavior, and limited parental support.

Reducing the Dropout Rate

Research tells us that special education students are less likely to drop out if they spend more time in general education classrooms, receive tutoring services, and are in schools that hold high expectations for academic achievement and school completion. These findings have been incorporated into several successful dropout prevention programs, many of which included students with disabilities and often high numbers of students with LD.

Successful dropout prevention programs:

  • Use indicators to identify students who are at risk.
  • Assign advocates to work with students at risk.
  • Provide supports and enrichments to improve the academic performance of those at risk, implementing programs to improve classroom behavior and social skills.
  • Personalize instruction and the learning environment.
  • Provide instruction that engages students and prepares them for graduation and skills they’ll need after graduation.

The Power of Parent Participation

Parents can contribute to their teen’s success by helping schools identify when their child is struggling or disengaging from school. They also can support their teens by reinforcing the importance of school and by engaging in school activities themselves, such as communicating with teachers and attending school events. I also encourage parents to find out if their schools provide the types of supports and programs associated with students staying in school.


Martha Thurlow is director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes. In this position, she addresses the implications of contemporary U.S. policy and practice for students with disabilities and English Language Learners, including national and statewide assessment policies and practices, standards-setting efforts, and graduation requirements.

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