Moving beyond Dropout towards School Completion: An Integrative Review of Data-Based Interventions

Article excerpt

Abstract. This article provides an integrative review of prevention and intervention studies addressing dropout or school completion described in professional journals. Forty-five intervention studies were coded according to research design, participants, interventions, and outcomes to describe the range of data-based programs and approaches available in the literature. In addition, effect sizes were calculated for dependent variables in 17 studies. The extent to which intervention studies reflect current conceptualizations of dropout are examined, and the degree to which the studies incorporate sound methodology is critically analyzed. The article concludes with recommendations for advancing intervention and prevention research to promote school completion. Implications for school psychologists, and related professionals and disciplines, to shift from a focus on dropout towards promoting school completion are explicated.


Attention to graduation and dropout rates has significantly increased as a result of the federal administration's priorities and legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Statistics indicate thousands of students in the United States leave school early each year without successfully completing school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). Approximately 1 in 8 children in the United States never graduate from high school and, based on calculations per school day (180 days of 7 hours each), one high school student drops out every 9 seconds (Children's Defense Fund, 2001). This is particularly alarming in today's society because employment opportunities that pay living wages and benefits have virtually disappeared for youth who have not completed a high school education nor acquired the requisite skills and knowledge. The costs associated with the present incidence of school dropout are staggering and are estimated in the billions of dollars in lost revenues, welfare, unemployment, crime prevention, and prosecution (Joint Economic Committee, 1991). Given the consequences to society and the individual, the importance of facilitating school completion for all students is a critical concern for researchers, policymakers, and educators across the country.

Current Understanding of Dropout--A Conceptual Framework

Over the years, an appreciation for the complexity of the dropout phenomenon has emerged in the literature. The marker variables (e.g., socioeconomic status, family structure) that place students at risk for dropout are well described (Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, & Godber, 2001; Rosenthal, 1998). In contrast to a discrete event, research has shown that early school leaving is the outcome of a long process of disengagement with measurable indicators that are present in the early grades (Barclay & Doll, 2001; Barrington & Hendricks, 1989). The concept of engagement has emerged as a critical theme in the process of understanding students' exit status from school (Doll & Hess, 2001; Finn, 1993; Grannis, 1994). Key ingredients of student engagement include student participation, identification with school or social bonding, academic performance, and personal investment in learning (Finn, 1993; Maehr & Midgely, 1996; Wehlage, Rutter, Smith, Lesko, & Fernandez, 1989).

A significant feature of the current framework is the shift in focus from preventing dropout to promoting school completion. According to Christenson, Sinclair, Lehr, and Hurley (2000), "Increasing students' engagement and enthusiasm for school is much more than simply staying in school and, thus, much more than the dropout problem--it involves supporting students to meet the defined academic standards of the school, as well as, underlying social and behavioral standards" (p. 21). In addition, more attention is being given to understanding the complex interplay between student, family, school, and community variables as well as risk and protective factors in shaping students' paths towards school withdrawal or completion (Hess & Copeland, 2001; Valez & Saenz, 2001; Worrell & Hale, 2001). …


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