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Report shows slight decrease in dropouts and mixed results for pilot raising dropout age

The State Board of Education heard findings this week from an annual report on statewide dropout data and also received an update from a pilot program in four districts that raised the permissible dropout age from 16 to 18.

“This is really great news overall for our state,” Deputy Superintendent of District Support Beverly Emory said of a report that consolidated six reports, including one on dropout. “We have so much work to do, but this is a piece that’s worth celebrating. This is what I call the more-kids-are-staying-in-school-longer-for-several-reasons report.”

While North Carolina has seen a decrease in dropouts over recent years — with the dropout rate a couple points down last year from the year prior and 46% down over 10 years — there were still close to 10,000 students who dropped out of public schools last year. 

Grades nine through 13 (early colleges provide a fifth year for students) reported 9,512 dropouts in 2018-2019, a decrease of 9.6% from the 10,523 reported in 2017-2018, and a 14% decrease from 2016-2017.

Hispanic male students had the highest dropout rate at 3.79%, followed by American Indian males at 3.72%, black males at 3.06%, multiracial males at 2.92%, Pacific Islander females at 2.77%, American Indian females at 2.51%, Pacific Islander males at 2.27%, and Hispanic females at 2.22%. All other groups had dropout rates lower than the state average of 2.1%.

Attendance issues were again cited most frequently as the main reason for a student dropping out, accounting for almost half (45.7%) of all dropouts. The second and third most widely reported dropout reasons were “unknown” at 9.3% and “lack of engagement with school and/or peers” at 8.95%.

The numbers showed the fewest dropouts among juniors and seniors. In the 2018-2019 academic year, students dropped out most frequently at grade 10 (29.9%), followed by grade nine (26.3%), grade 11 (24.4%), and grade 12 (14.6%). The high school grade with the largest percentage decrease in dropouts from the previous academic year was ninth grade (11.5%) followed by 12th grade (10.5%).

In 2013, the General Assembly passed legislation for a pilot program raising the dropout age from 16 to 18. Four pilot counties participated: Hickory Public Schools and Newton-Conover City Schools (implemented 2015-16), Rutherford County Schools (implemented 2017-18), and McDowell County Schools (implemented 2018-19).

The State Board of Education has previously voted to support raising the dropout age. According to a report the Board heard Thursday, advocates of raising the age say it gives students a longer time to weigh their options and make an informed decision. These advocates point to the significantly higher lifetime earning potential of those who graduate high school and emphasize the critical need for an educated workforce.

Research indicates that students who drop out of school are more likely to be unemployed, earn lower salaries, and are more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.

The pilot is still in early stages for some districts, but last year, three of the four participating districts saw decreases in dropouts.

Statewide, the dropout rate continued to decline in the last two-year period of the pilot. Two of the four districts in the pilot saw a decline in dropout rates since the 2018 report. McDowell only has one year’s worth of data, though it saw a decrease in that year, and Newton-Conover saw an increase.

Based on site visits, the reports states that:

  • Participants found the pilot challenging because the districts were now approaching attendance and dropout prevention differently than other districts. Also, community partners (the judicial system, social services, other support agencies) did not necessarily understand the change. The pilot districts experienced a disconnect in systems across interested agencies and state government. 
  • Messaging was difficult. Students and parents didn’t all know about the age increase.
  • The most significant impact of the pilot was reported as the additional two years to support students in earning credits to graduation. All four districts agreed that, while this “time” may not always yield a measurable decrease in dropout rate, it does create an opportunity window that is otherwise not available.

“Changing the age isn’t beneficial if you’re simply delaying the dropout by two years,” said Rutherford County Schools’ superintendent David Sutton. “Ultimately, the ability to retain students for the two additional school years provides more opportunity for the district/school to intervene and to allow systems support to work on supporting students in their effort to reach graduation success.”

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia do not allow students to drop out before turning 18, but not all have experienced success. Kentucky, which raised its dropout age to 18 over a cautious multi-year process that began in 2013, has seen unintended negative repercussions as a result of the change.

Notably, the state with the nation’s highest graduation rate in 2017 — Iowa (91%) — only requires students to remain in school until age 16.

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.