risk students were poor predictors of dropping out, correctly identifying less than a third of dropouts.1
At the time, identification of at-risk students was primarily accomplished through single-point-in-time indicators, such as checklists or questionnaires that reflected performance and attitudes in the given year only. Longitudinal information that tracked students and cohorts over time was rarely available. Insights learned from this research suggested that risk factors may cumulate from year to year and that there may be benefit to measuring trends in students’ status on the risk factors over time (Gleason and Dynarski, 2002). For instance, for some students, a year of poor performance may be regarded as a temporary setback that causes them to buckle down and work harder the next year. Other students may not be as resilient—one year of poor performance may lead to another, causing the student to become discouraged, to increasingly detach from school, and ultimately to drop out.
Several comprehensive studies followed that made use of longitudinal data (i.e., Allensworth and Easton, 2005; Neild, Stoner-Eby, and Furstenberg, 2001; Roderick and Camburn, 1999). These studies considered some of the same variables evaluated by Gleason and Dynarski, but the existence of data collected over time allowed for examination of the interactions among potential precursors to dropping out and students’ individual levels of resiliency and persistence. Below we discuss two series of studies that grew from work with middle school students in Philadelphia and high school students in Chicago.
Robert Balfanz and his colleagues have conducted a series of studies on early precursors of dropping out, warning signs that become apparent before students begin high school. This work began with the Philadelphia school system. At the time the study started, most of the grade 9 students in the 21 Philadelphia neighborhood high schools were over age for the grade (older than the typical ninth grade student). At some schools as many as 80 percent of the freshmen were repeating the grade for the second or third time. Students had poor attendance records in grade 8, and their achievement in mathematics and reading was below grade level.
Balfanz and colleagues followed a cohort of students for seven years, from the 1995-96 school year (when they were enrolled in grade 6) to the 2003-04 school year (one year past their expected time of graduation). The researchers
Risk factors considered in their research were family background variables (i.e., a single-parent family, a sibling who dropped out, a mother who did not graduate); school experience variables (i.e., absenteeism, overage for grade, low grades, disciplinary problems, record of frequent transfers); personal characteristics (i.e., external locus of control, low self-esteem, student is not sure he or she will graduate); and the presence of adult responsibilities (i.e., student has a child).