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Rodel scholars identify early dropout behaviors

January 30, 2008

Thousands of Arizona high school students drop out of school annually. Many of these children are too old to go to bed early and too young to drive, yet they abandon Arizona schools at the rate of about 28,400 each year.

Faced with the overwhelming task of finding a job in an increasingly complex and challenging society, why would a student leave high school before graduating?

A team of ASU students believes it may have some answers.

The students are Rodel Community Scholars, an elite group of highly motivated undergraduates attending ASU’s West campus and majoring in a variety of disciplines. They work alongside school administrators to identify and address key issues affecting Arizona’s education system.

The Rodel scholars, led by ASU’s Gregory Hickman, director of the Rodel Community Scholars program, recently completed a study titled “The Differential Developmental Trajectories of High School Dropouts and Graduates.” The longitudinal study tracked students from kindergarten through high school, examining behavioral characteristics of dropouts. The study will appear in the Journal of Education Research, a renowned periodical that reaches an international audience of educators concerned with cutting-edge theories and proposals.

“We’ve identified certain behaviors associated with high school dropouts,” says Rodel scholar Mitchell Bartholomew, a 24-year-old resident of Glendale and an ASU psychology major. “We also discovered that the dropout process can begin as early as kindergarten.”

This is contrary to earlier beliefs that dropping out was more of an impulsive act rather than a long-term process.

“As complicated as most circumstances are for these children, leaving school before graduation is not an instantaneous event,” says Hickman, an associate professor in the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at the West campus. “It is a gradual process of that should be tracked long before a child progresses into high school.”

Until recently, most dropout intervention programs typically targeted high school students.

“This line of thought assumes children exist in an ‘educational vacuum’ from kindergarten through eighth grade,” Hickman says.

“Consequently, educators may be overlooking important developmental trajectories exhibited by students before entering high school.”

As the former director of the Arizona Dropout Initiative, Hickman has conducted research into the factors affecting high school attendance, including the impact of compulsory attendance laws and the AIMS test.

“We discovered that, as early as kindergarten, differences exist between graduates and dropouts; namely, dropouts miss more school than graduates,” Hickman says. “Dropouts miss an average of 124 days by eighth grade. Educators should begin developing strategies to improve student attendance from as early as kindergarten.”

While certain behaviors are developed early, Hickman adds that dropout characteristics are not necessarily set in stone.

“Kids can succeed despite their early history,” he says. “You can’t just look at a few demographic variables and write these kids off. There are too many windows of opportunity for change.”

Reducing Arizona’s dropout rates requires a profound rethinking of how to keep students in school. ASU’s Rodel scholars have developed innovative programs designed to make it easier for children to get from kindergarten to high school graduation. Projects address everything from tracking struggling students to dropout intervention to increasing parental involvement to locating scholarships for high school graduates.

“The developmental trajectory study is my second psychological project researching student dropout variables,” Bartholomew says. “I am currently working on an attentional bias study that examines the physiological biases or shift of high school students toward school-related words.”

“Attentional bias” refers to hyper-attention to threatening material. This hyper-attention occurs even with verbal material that is not relevant to the primary task in which the subject is involved. A consequence of attentional bias is an increased focus on threatening material, or words, which can elevate a student’s anxiety level.

“We believe there are particular words that are considered more threatening or stress-inducing to students who drop out of school rather than students who graduate,” Bartholomew says. “Hopefully, our research will result in a valid screening device in which to identifying potential dropout students.”

Though solving the dropout crisis is no easy task, the scholars are continually developing approaches to help students stay in school and become successful.

“While we may never get the state’s dropout rate to zero, we can definitely do better,” Hickman says. “In today’s world, if you don’t have a high school diploma, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”