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Opinion: What’s with Colo.'s 12th-grade dropout rate?

Holly Yettick is a doctoral student in the Educational Foundations, Policy and Practice program at the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

It is heartbreaking when any student drops out of high school. It is especially heartbreaking when that student makes it all the way to 12th grade only to leave months before his classmates don their caps and gowns.

That’s why a certain statistic caught my eye as I read the 2011 Education Week “Quality Counts” report. The report examined (among other things) the students who were scheduled to graduate with the class of 2008 but dropped out instead.

Nationwide, 25 percent of the dropouts from the class of 2008 left school senior year.

Yet in Colorado, 43.4 percent of 2008 dropouts left senior year.

That’s a big difference.

One obvious reason for the high percentage of 12th grade dropouts is that in 2007, Colorado raised the legal dropout age from 16 to 17. It is difficult, however, to determine whether the 12th-grade drop-out rate was higher before this occurred.  That’s because the state, in recent years, has made import changes to dropout rate calculations.[i]

These changes also potentially affected the 2008 dropout rate calculations included in the 2011 edition of “Quality Counts.” But members of the class of 2010 did not start high school until 2006-07—which was after all of the data collection changes had occurred.  So I went to the Colorado Department of Education website to check out what percentage of the class of 2010 dropped out as seniors.

The 12th –grade dropout rate for the class of 2010 was very similar to the 12th grade dropout rate for the class of 2008 . Of the 15,256 students who dropped out of the class of 2010, 37% were seniors as compared to 41% in 2008.

Dropouts from the class of 2010, by grade, state of Colorado

Grade levelYearNumber of dropoutsPercent of total dropouts, class of 2010


The percent of 12th grade dropouts varied considerably among metro-area districts.  Interestingly, percent of Denver’s 12th grade dropouts was much lower than the state average. In Denver, members of the class of 2010 were most likely to drop out in ninth grade (34 percent). 

Number and percent of 12th grade dropouts, class of 2010, by school district

DistrictNumber of 12th grade dropouts from the class of 2010Percent of 12th grade dropouts from the class of 2010
Boulder Valley12250%
Jefferson County48449%
Adams 1241035%
Cherry Creek18335%
Douglas County6028%


Certainly, these types of calculations are imperfect because they do not account for students who take more than one year to complete a grade. But this is presumably true in every state and every district. Why would rates vary among districts? Why would Colorado have a much higher percentage of 12th –grade dropouts than other states even as our overall dropout rate appears to be declining? I say “appears” because of the data collection changes.

It is possible that this is nothing but a big data snafu. It is also possible that Colorado students really are waiting longer to leave school than students in many other states. Perhaps students are staying in school longer because the dropout age was raised. If so, that is a step in the right direction. But I doubt the goal of the law was merely to encourage students to postpone dropping out. Somehow I think lawmakers hoped more kids would make it all the way to graduation. If this is to occur, then we, as a state, may need to refocus dropout prevention resources so that older students get more assistance and attention. This is especially crucial because, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Colorado’s overall dropout rate in grades 9-12 was 6.4% in 2008, the most recent year for which national data is available.[ii]That is well above the US average of 4.1%. Only Alaska, Arizona and Louisiana had higher rates.


  1. [i] Until 2002, the state had a category called “ungraded.”  In the 1990s, thousands of students fell into this category. The annual dropout rate for this category hovered around 30%. The existence of this category obviously makes it difficult to compare, say, the number of 12th graders who dropped out of the class of 2008 with the number of 12th graders who dropped out of the class of 1998 because there is no way of knowing where these ungraded students fit into the picture.
  2. In 2003-04, the state started using individual student identifiers to collect dropout data. According to the Department of Education, this increased accuracy, resulting in a one-time increase in the dropout rate. The state also discovered a computer error that was artificially deflating the dropout rate in certain districts.
  3. In 2005, the state started counting missing students as dropouts if districts could not document that they had transferred to another school or to home schooling. According to the Department of Education, this also caused a one-time increase in the dropout rate.


[ii] The Colorado Department of Education’s estimate for that year is lower (3.8%)

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