Reducing the number of high school dropouts has been a major challenge facing public education (Phelan, 1987). Former President Bush initiated federal legislation establishing a national goal of 90% high school graduation rate by the year 2000 while the Council of Chief State School Officers set an even loftier goal of 100% (Sinclair, 1994; Thompson-Hoffman & Hayward, 1990). These goals focused on students without disabilities. The dropout rate for students with disabilities was not seriously addressed until 1990 when the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) required states to report on how many of these students were leaving school prior to graduation (Thompson-Hoffman & Hayward, 1990).
Current estimates place the overall dropout rate for students without disabilities at 11% (U.S. Department of Education, 2001). This figure has been traditionally higher for students with disabilities (Lichtenstein, 1993; Mitchell, 1997; Thompson-Hoffman & Hayward, 1990). For example, students with emotional/behavioral disorders have a dropout rate between 50% and 59% while between 32% and 36% of students with learning disabilities drop out of school (Sinclair, 1994; Wagner, 1991).
Although dropout rates among students with and without disabilities is an area of concern, it remains difficult to determine the severity of the problem given the current lack of a uniform definition and calculation method (Bartnick & Parkay 1991; Hammack, 1986; Morrow, 1986; Phelan, 1987; Rumberger, 1987; Sinclair, 1994). Disparities continue to exist because school districts can select the definition and calculation method they want in order to manipulate the data to obtain a favorable dropout figure (Sinclair, 1994).
There are two commonly accepted calculation methods used for computing dropout rates (Bulter-Nalin & Padilla, 1989; Rumberger, 1997; Sinclair, 1994). The event method measures the proportion of students who drop out of school in a single year (i.e., "What percentage of students dropped out this year?"). It is the most liberal and, consequently, favored by school districts because it underestimates the true number of dropouts. The cohort method, or longitudinal approach, involves following a group of students who are expected to graduate together across the secondary school years (i.e., "What percentage of students entering the X grade in a certain school district drop out after Y years?"). It is the most conservative and, consequently, accurate method (Morrow, 1986; Wolman, Bruininks, & Thurlow, 1989). School districts avoid using this method because it portrays an accurate but unfavorable dropout rate. There is a third method that is rarely used but nevertheless appears in the literature: status rate. It measures the proportion of students who have not completed high school and are not enrolled on a specific day.
It is critical that a common approach, preferably cohort, be adopted. Until such agreement exists, Sinclair (1994) suggested that each dropout figure should include a notation describing the computational method and actual definition used to classify the reason a student exited school. Comparisons could then be made between data and the effectiveness of dropout prevention programs evaluated.
Another area in which general, but less specific, information exists is the reasons why students with and without disabilities drop out of school. General reasons can be grouped into two categories: academic failure and disengagement from the educational environment.
Academic failure is a primary reason both students with and without disabilities drop out of school (Croninger & Lee, 2001; Kaplan, Peck, & Kaplan, 1997; Scanlon & Mellard, 2002; Sinclair, 1994; Smith, 1986; Wagner, 1991). Researchers have found that failing a course and getting poor grades are two reasons students with disabilities exited high school before graduating (Smith, 1986; Wagner, 1991). …