At the Workshop on Improved Measurement of High School Dropout and Completion Rates: Expert Guidance on Next Steps for Research and Policy, a series of presentations discussed why it is important to report dropout and graduation rates and how they are used for public policy. These presentations serve as the basis for the information in this chapter, particularly papers by Dan Losen, with the Civil Rights Project (Losen, 2008), and Richard Rothstein, with the Economic Policy Institute (Rothstein, 2008). We supplemented these presentations with our own review of the relevant literature, as further explained in each section of this chapter.
There is a wide body of research on the social and economic outcomes associated with educational attainment. A review of these studies reveals that individuals who fail to earn a high school diploma are clearly disadvantaged in many aspects of life—from the jobs they obtain and the wages they earn to their sense of physical and emotional well-being. Society is also disadvantaged when students drop out, since studies show that dropouts are less likely than graduates to contribute to the social and economic well-being of the country.
For the most part, this literature consists of studies that are descriptive in nature, documenting the differences in outcomes for individuals with and without a high school diploma. It is important to note that most of them do not support inferences about the factors that cause individuals who dropout to experience economic and social hardships. Attributing cause in this line of research is difficult for several reasons. One complexity is that the factors that cause students to drop out are also factors that cause people to not do well in other aspects of life. That is, students who drop out often have low achievement and low motivation, factors that contribute to poor performance in school and poor functioning in society (Rumberger, forthcoming). These and other personal attributes may be the underlying cause of the poor social and economic outcomes experienced by this group; dropping out may be a symptom of the problem rather than the cause.
Another complexity stems from the fact that it is difficult to design the kinds of studies that allow one to attribute cause, such as by conducting experiments that make use of random assignment. Clearly, individuals cannot be randomly assigned to be dropouts or graduates. Studies that employ advanced techniques, such as model fitting or regression discontinuity analyses, also can support causal inference; however, only a few studies have used these techniques.1