Are 'Early Warning Systems' for Potential Dropouts Working?

While the high school dropout rate across the country is alarming, it does not have to be inevitable. Many believe that identifying and reacting to early signs of dropping out can prevent some kids from doing so. To that end, some school districts are using early warning systems that target at-risk students. But are these systems actually working?

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Heeding the Warning Signs

The idea behind early warning systems is to track several indicators or predictors that could be seen as 'red flags' for potential dropouts. Problems seen in one or more of these areas could help officials determine which students might drop out and subsequently address these problems using intervention methods such as tutoring, mentoring or parental communication.

Different systems use different indicators (Louisiana's system once used more than 200!), but all of them generally track a few of the same. These are:

  • Attendance: those missing more than 20 days of school might be potential dropouts.
  • Behavior: repeated detentions or suspensions are a bad sign.
  • Course performance: students who do not perform well in some classes could be in danger of dropping out.

Systems Not Perfected

There are currently 16 states utilizing early warning systems for potential dropouts. Of those, only four issue weekly or daily reports concerning the information gathered by these systems.

So, are these systems being utilized correctly? It's hard to say, since many of them are relatively new. But some feel that ninth grade is too long to wait to implement these systems because by that grade students have likely already decided whether or not they are dropping out (there are, however, some systems being used for early intervention; a program called Diplomas Now, for example, which began in 2008, instituted an early warning system in middle schools in several cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles).

Another question the systems raise is: Can some indicators be properly tracked? For instance, behavior can be difficult since discipline practices vary so greatly, not just from state to state but also within school districts.

Are Systems Helping?

In many cases, early warning systems are simply too new to have been adequately studied for their effectiveness.

But studies of systems that have been in place for longer than two years indicate that they are having some impact. For instance, Abbeville High School in Louisiana showed 90% of ninth-graders moved on to 10th grade in 2008, when the school implemented an early-warning and intervention program.

A review of the Check & Connect early warning system by the U.S. Department of Education in 2006 found that schools using this system showed improved effectiveness in getting students to not only stay in school but to progress as well.

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