High School Dropout

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High School Dropout

The high school dropout rate not only indicates the success of our school system; it forecasts possible problems to come. Virginia's dropout rate has declined in recent years. Due to the efforts of schools as well as outreach and GED attainment programs, the Commonwealth's rate is well below the national average.

Why is This Important?

The high school dropout rate is one measure of the success of our elementary and secondary educational systems. Moreover, because high school dropouts are at higher risk of unemployment and other social ills, dropout rates are a leading indicator of potential future problems. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in November 2016 the national unemployment rate for adults without a high school diploma was three percentage points higher than for those who had graduated from high school.

How is Virginia Doing?

The Virginia Department of Education computes the high school dropout rate using a longitudinal method for tracking high school students (see Note below). The dropout rate is determined by dividing the number of dropouts over a four year period by the cohort of students for that time.

High School Dropout Rate, 7-12th Grade, By Region. See text for explanation.Dropout rates in 2016 improved slightly for five of Virginia's eight regions, but the remainder -- the Eastern, Northern, and Valley regions -- saw an increase in students abandoning high school. For the first time in eight years, the statewide average dropout rate rose slightly, from 5.2 percent to 5.3 percent. The Southwest (4.9%), Valley (4.6%), Hampton Roads (4.3%), and West Central (5.0%) regions had dropout rates below the statewide average; the remaining regions had rates above that 5.3 percent average.

High School Dropout Rate by State. See text for explanation.

The most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows Virginia's high school dropout rates decreasing in recent years, falling from 3.0 percent in 2003 to 1.9 percent in 2012 -- the 5th lowest dropout rate in the country. Virginia's 2012 rate was also lower than the national average of 3.3 percent and the rates of its peer states: Maryland (3.8%), Tennessee (3.7%), and North Carolina (3.1%). New Hampshire had the lowest dropout rate in the nation in 2012 at 1.3 percent.

What Influences High School Dropout Rates?

One of the most significant factors influencing high school dropout rates is family income. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students from low-income families are six times more likely to drop out of high school than students from high-income families. But a host of other socio-economic factors also play a significant role, including parental education levels, race, cultural expectations and behaviors, and the availability and consistency of adult and community support. 

For example, recent studies have identified common disciplinary practices, such as suspensions and expulsons, as a significant factor in creating dropouts, particularly among non-white and/or disabled students. According to the US Department of Education, "black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, while students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their non-disabled peers." "Zero tolerance" laws against certain behaviors in school have also made suspension, expulsion, and formal legal charges the norm in many districts and states; Virginia actually led the nation in 2015 for the number of students referred to law enforcement and the courts for such disciplinary infractions.

What is the State's Role?

Many of the most significant factors affecting dropout rates, like family income, are beyond the reach of the school system. State programs aimed at dealing with dropout issues generally take one of two forms:

  • Preventive programs, such as Project Graduation, that are designed to keep young people in school by identifying and helping students at risk of dropping out.
  • Programs like Race to GED and the Virginia Community College System's Middle College, which "recover" dropouts by helping them get a GED after they leave high school.

Through its "Classrooms, Not Courtrooms" initiative, Virginia is also working to engage public school officials about school disciplinary practices.

Page last modified December 14, 2016
High School Dropouts by State

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

State-level Data

The National Center for Educational Statistics provides state ranking rates derived from the public school high school population only (grades 9-12). The state ranking for Vermont is missing.
Data is for Event Dropouts, which is the percentage of public school students in grades 9-12 who dropped out of school in a given year.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment status of the civilian population 25 years and over by educational attainment

US Dep't of Education, School Climate and Discipline: Know the Data

Center for Public Integrity, "Virginia Tops Nation in Sending Students to Cops, Courts," April 2015

Regional-level Data

Virginia Department of Education, Virginia Cohort Reports:

Virginia Department of Education, Frequently Asked Questions About High School Student Cohort Reports (pdf)

Who is a dropout?

Virginia has adopted the definition established by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). A dropout is an individual who:

  1. Was enrolled in school at some time during the previous school year but was not enrolled on October 1 of the current school year, OR
  2. Was not enrolled on October 1 of the previous school year although expected to be in membership; and
    -- has not graduated from high school or completed a state- or district-approved educational program; and
    -- does not meet any of the following exclusions:
    • transfer to another public school district, private school, or state- or district-approved education program;
    • temporary school-recognized absence due to suspension or illness;
    • death.

Note:  Virginia dropout and graduation rates are cohort rates (See High School Graduation, Data Definitions, for an explanation of cohort, event and status.). They look at what happens to a cohort of students -- those who started ninth grade together. The dropout rate is not simply one hundred minus the graduation rate. In addition to graduates and dropouts, a student cohort includes students who are still enrolled, students who completed high school with a GED or other state-recognized credential, and students on long-term medical leave.

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
High School Dropouts in Virginia

Performance Trend:  Trend is improving
State Influence:  

National Ranking:  Virginia has generally seen a steady decline in high school dropouts and ranked 5th nationally in 2012 (latest data available).

Virginia by Region:  Five regions saw modest improvements in their dropout rates for the 2015-2016 school year, while the remainder saw increases. The Hampton Roads region led the state with a dropout rate of 4.3%.

Related Agency Measures
State Programs & Initiatives

Project Graduation identifies students who are at risk of dropping out and works to reverse performance through intensive study programs and multiple re-testing opportunities.

GED Virginia logo
The GED Virginia program targets working-age adults who can demonstrate academic readiness to prepare for and pass the English version of the GED Tests. GED graduates are competent in the workplace, qualified for advancement to higher-level skills, and capable of achieving post-secondary education or technical-skills certification.