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Follow-up of postsecondary-age rural learning disabled graduates and dropouts.

ABSTRACT: This article reports the dropout rates, basic skills competency levels, and employment status of a group of semi-rural learning disabled postsecondary-age youth and , control group of nonlearning disabled same-age peers. Findings indicated significantly higher dropout rates and significantly lower basic skills competency levels among learning disabled youth. Learning disabled graduates and dropouts were not different in how they fared in the employment market for the group, nor were they different compared to peers. Educational implications of these findings and future suggestions for follow-up research are discussed.

More than 4 million handicapped students, of whom 40% are learning disabled, receive special education services supported in part by federal funds, as provided by Public Law 94-142 (U.S. Department of Education, 1985). Programs designed to serve these students with learning disabilities are growing tremendously across the country-both in urban and rural areas. Yet many secondary-age students with learning disabilities leave the educational system before they can take full advantage of these programs. Reports of a serious dropout problem in the population of students with learning disabilities are surfacing in both urban and rural communities.

Levin, Zigmond, and Birch (1985) documented progress of 52 adolescents with learning disabilities from a large urban area who were enrolled in the 9th grade during the 1977-78 school year and should have been in the 12th grade at the time of follow-up. They found that 47% of the learning disabled students had left school before the 12th grade, far in excess of the 36% drop-out rate reported by the host school district for that same period of time. Zigmond and Thornton (1985) confirmed Levin et al.'s results in a subsequent study in the same large urban area. They interviewed learning disabled and normally achieving students who had been out of school a minimum of 19 months and found that over 50% of the youth with learning disabilities (in comparison to 33% of their peer group) had left school before graduation. In a large suburban school district, White, Schumaker, Warner, Alley, and Deshler (1980) found that 26% of the youth with learning disabilities had dropped out of school before graduation, far in excess of the 8.5% dropout rate in a non-exceptional control sample in their study.

However, the dropout problem involving students with learning disabilities does not seem to be limited to urban and suburban areas; reports of alarming rates also are beginning to surface in studies carried out in more rural areas. Hasazi, Gordon, and Roe (1985) interviewed mildly handicapped students who had attended high school in Vermont. Of the nine school districts from which Hasazi et al. gathered data, four were classified as rural. They reported a 35% dropout rate overall (the population of students with learning disabilities was not isolated within their handicapped sample). Fardig, Algozzine, Schwartz, Hensel, and Westling (1985) reported the dropout rate among mildly handicapped youth in several rural school districts in Florida as 31%; unfortunately, the dropout rate for the students in the Fardig et al. study was not reported by category [i.e., specific learning disabled (SLD), educable mentally handicapped (EMH), and behaviorally disordered (BD)]. A study by Cobb and Crump (1984) is the only study to look at rural students with learning disabilities specifically. They traced 100 young adults in a southern, rural county school system and reported a dropout rate of 42%.

Rural schools differ from more urban ones; they have distinct educational environments and serve a unique subgroup of students (Helge, 1984). The number of rural public school handicapped students identified and served since the passage of P.L. 94-142 has increased by 92% (cited in Marrs, 1984). With such an increase in the number of rural students receiving special education services, there is a strong need for verification of the dropout rate among students with learning disabilities in such rural areas. The studies reported previously suggest that the dropout rates among rural learning disabled youth are not as high as in more urban areas (see Cobb & Crump, 1984; Fardig et al., 1985; Hasazi et al., 1985; Zigmond & Thornton, 1985).

In addition to identifying the dropout rate in rural areas, it is important to document the consequences of dropping out for rural learning disabled youth. One would expect that failure to complete a high school program would result in a dismal prospect for employment and independence in rural as well as urban areas. The Zigmond and Thornton (1985) study uncovered a close connection between premature school leaving and unemployment. Hasazi et al. (1985) also looked at the graduation status and employment statistics for rural and metropolitan mildly handicapped youth in Vermont and found that 60% of graduates were employed, but only 40% of dropouts. The Fardig et al. (1985) study of mildly handicapped students from rural Florida suggests that graduation status makes a difference, but the data were not analyzed by category. Cobb and Crump (1984) did not analyze employment rates by graduation status, but their total sample was employed at a very high rate (87%). Given that they reported a fairly high dropout rate (41%), it would seem that dropping out was unrelated to getting a job after high school in their rural learning disabled population.

The picture is unclear; a study is needed to clarify the dropout rates of students with learning disabilities in rural areas and to determine the outcomes of dropping out in terms of employment. The current study was undertaken (a) to determine the dropout rates and employment statistics of a learning disabled population in a rural school district, and (b) to determine if these rates differed from the rates and statistics reported by colleagues in a study that used the same methodology but in a larger, more urban, school district. Finally, school record data were used to verify graduation status and investigate retention patterns that might be associated with dropping out.

METHODS

This study included two research samples (learning disabled [LD] and control), which were drawn from the population of 1979-80, 1980-81, and 1981-82 ninth graders in the host district. Sample identification procedures are shown in Figure 1.

The LD research sample included all students from the three school-year cohorts who were enrolled as ninth graders in an LD program; who had an opportunity to complete their schooling in the host district, i.e., did not transfer out of the host district or were not incarcerated before graduating from or dropping out of high school; and who consented to participate in the study. Of the identified LD ninth graders (n = 97), 15 transfers and incarcerations were purged from the list, leaving a sample of 82 LD students, whom we attempted to locate at the time of follow-up. Forty-four of the former LD students were located and consented to participate in the study.

A control sample was randomly selected from the population of nonhandicapped, nongifted, nonlearning-disabled (NLD) students from the three school-year, ninth-grade cohorts. Of the 116 NLD students in the random sample, 21 transfers and incarcerations were purged from the list, leaving a total NLD sample of 95 students, whom we attempted to locate at the time of follow-up. Sixty-four of the NLD subjects were located and consented to participate in the study.

Sample

This study was conducted in a semi-rural school district located at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in central Virginia. Almost half of the total county land area is listed as farmland. The population of the county is approximately 60,000, with a school population of 9,000. The county surrounds a small southern town that revolves around a university located within its boundaries. The university employs the greatest portion of the area's employed, with county and city governments ranking second. In this county and the city it surrounds, the unemployment rate for the years during which data were collected was reported as between 4.4% and 4.9% (Virginia Employment Commission, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982).

There are (and were during the target years) two high schools in the county serving approximately 2,500 students, of which 6% were identified as learning disabled. The LD students are (and were) served within a resource room model that emphasized tutorial or remedial instruction. Each LD student received approximately 1 to 2 hours (hr) of resource help per day.

At the time of follow-up, students from both groups had been out of school a minimum of 18 months if they had graduated with their class. Early school exiters would have been out of school for longer periods, some as long as 6 years.

To maximize student contacts, several location and contact techniques were employed. With the cooperation of the school system, the most recent addresses and telephone numbers were obtained for each student. Each student was telephoned to schedule a face-to-face interview. High school LD teachers and guidance counselors were approached for additional information on students who might have maintained contact with school personnel since leaving high school. This was particularly helpful in locating early school leavers whose addresses on school records were least current.

Letters were mailed to subjects who had current address information, but no current phone listing. These letters asked the addressee to contact an interviewer to set up an appointment. Mail "interview" surveys were sent to subjects who were in the armed services and to others who had moved from the area but for whom current addresses were located. Mail surveys were also sent to subjects who responded to the telephone contact but claimed to be "too busy" to submit to face-to-face interviews.

Procedures

Subjects who could be located and contacted were engaged in a semi-structured, face-to-face interview. The interview guide developed for the Zigmond and Thornton (1985) study was used to facilitate comparison of the results on the rural and urban samples. The guide combined areas of information commonly collected in other follow-up studies with questions specific to the purpose of this investigation. Four dimensions were probed in the interview: (a) demographic and family status information, (b) school-related information and perceptions, (c) current social adjustment information, and (d) employment and posthigh school training status and history.

Section four of the interview included questions about subjects' job history since leaving school (i.e., duration, how found, wages, satisfaction, and hours per week worked), their future occupational goals, their education pursuits, and their involvement in current training programs. For the purposes of this study, selected employment data from section four of the interview were analyzed.

In addition to collecting interview information, current levels of reading and numeracy were documented for subjects who were willing to be tested. The SRA Achievement Series (Thorpe, Lefever, & Naslund, 1978) in reading and math was administered. The Science Research Associates (SRA) achievement tests were selected because they are regularly administered to 11th graders in the target school district and comparisons could be made of in-school (for students who stayed through 11th grade) and beyond-school basic-skills competence levels. Standard scores of the SRA are reported in terms of normal curve equivalents (NCEs).

All study participants were asked to sign a consent form that permitted the research team to access school records. School records were examined to verify each subject's graduation status and for information on repeated grades. For LD students, special education records were also reviewed for data collected at the time of initial placement and in subsequent follow-up evaluations.

RESULTS

Of the 82 eligible subjects in the LD sample, 44 (53.7%) were located and participated in the study. This is a slightly lower "find" rate than that reported in the Zigmond and Thornton (1985) study. Of the 95 eligible subjects in the NLD sample, 64 (67.4%) were located and participated in the study.

The most difficult subjects to track were those who had been in the ninth grade during the 1979-80 school year. At the time of follow-up, it had been almost 6 years since these students had been in the ninth grade. Many of the students' addresses were not in the school records. Many subjects had never had a telephone, or their telephone number was no longer in service. Many of the rural addresses did not coincide with an actual street listing (e.g., RFD #7 is the mailing address for the rural street listing on Route 769); this made it impossible to conduct a home visit to the last known address to locate a subject or to use other "find" techniques (e.g., the Cole Directory to locate neighbors), suggested by Zigmond and Thornton (1985).

Table I compares data for the LD and NLD samples. Race and sex data are reported for all subjects. SRA data were not available in the cumulative school records of all students.

The LD and NLD samples were not significantly different in racial distribution. As expected, there were significantly more males in the LD group than in the NLD group, X2 = 3.2, p = .003. The disproportionate number of males in the LD sample was consistent with the LD literature (Kirk & Elkins, 1975). The disproportionate number of females in the NLD sample was unexpected because the sample was randomly drawn from the total ninth-grade population for the three school years. However, the study sample did reflect the total grade population in terms of male/female makeup.

SRA reading and math tests administered in the 11th grade were available for 27 LD and 54 NLD subjects. The scores of the LD group were significantly lower in both reading and math, p < .001.

Descriptive information on the LD sample was available from the special education records maintained by the school district. Permission was granted by 38 of the 44 subjects to review their records. Table 2 summarizes IQ and achievement scores for these LD students at two points in time: (a) initial placement in the LD program and (b) follow-up evaluation approximately 3.5 years later.

The LD students who participated in this study were, as a group, identified for placement at age 11.2 ([plus or minus] 1.9) years. Their mean Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised (WISC-R) Full Scale IQ score at the time of placement was 98.5 - 11.6), consistent with the IQ ranges reported in national surveys of LD populations (Kirk & Elkins, 1975; Norman & Zigmond, 1980). Achievement levels in reading and math, represented by standard scores on the Wide Range Achievement Test (WRAT), were in the mid- to upper 80s and were equivalent to approximate grade levels at placement of mid-fourth to fifth grade. Three years to 4 years later, at the time of reevaluation, these LD students had not changed much in their IQ or academic performance relative to age.

Drop-Out Rates

For purposes of this study, students were considered dropouts if their permanent school records indicated that they had not been issued a high school diploma. Students who moved from the district or were incarcerated during secondary school were not classified as dropouts, but were purged from the sample. The dropout rate was the number of students in each sample who failed to earn a high school diploma within 6 years after ninth grade out of the total number of eligible students in the ninth-grade samples.

Because the find rate was low and the school district was concerned about the accuracy of dropout rates based on such small numbers, school officials permitted the researchers access to available student records, which provided graduation status on 72 of the 82 eligible LD subjects and 87 of the 95 eligible NLD subjects. Table 3 displays rates of high school completion for LD and NLD subjects obtained from high school records and from interviews. Based on the information available from the high school records, the proportion of high school dropouts in the LD sample (36. 1 %) was significantly higher than the NLD sample 12.6%), X2 = 10.9, p = .001. For the interviewed sample, the dropout rate was 20.5% for the LD sample and 9.4% in the NLD sample, a difference that was not significant. As high school records must be considered a more reliable and complete source of graduation statistics for the school district, the dropout rates based on records are viewed as more accurate. The differences in the two sets of data, however, further explain the find rate for this study. It seems clear that it was easier to locate and interview graduates than dropouts; 76% of both LD and NLD graduates were located by the research staff. In contrast, only 35% of LD dropouts and 55% of NLD dropouts were located.

School records also indicated that grade retention at middle or high school had a devastating effect on LD students. A little more than half (n = 23) of the LD sample had repeated at least one grade by the time they were to enter 10th grade, and one-third of these LD repeaters left school before graduation (n = 7). In almost all cases in which a student failed ninth grade (LD and NLD), he or she left school before graduation. (Note: All LD and NLD 1979-80 and 1980-81 ninth-grade failures dropped out. One or two NLD 1981-82 ninth-grade failures did not drop out.)

Employment

Interview data were used to generate employment patterns for dropouts, graduates, LDs, and NLDs. A subject was considered employed if he or she was working for a wage at least 10 hours per week at the time of follow-up.

Graduates and dropouts were not different in how they fared in the employment market for the group as a whole, and for LD and NLD subgroups (see Table 4). The employment rate for LD graduates (80.0%) was not significantly different from the employment rate for NLD graduates (74. 1 ), and LD and NLD dropouts also were equally successful in finding employment (88.9% and 66.7%, respectively).

Since the differences in sex distribution across groups may have influenced the employment patterns, a re-analysis of employment outcomes was undertaken for males only (see Table 5). Again, graduates and dropouts within both LD and NLD subsets were employed at similar rates, and there were no significant differences in employment rates across males in the LD and NLD groups.

Reading and math scores for the SRA administered at follow-up are reported in Table 6. Nonparametric group comparisons (Mann-Whitney U Test) yielded the following results. Within the LD group, neither reading nor math scores for graduates and dropouts were significantly different. NLD graduate and dropout reading scores also did not differ significantly. However, NLD graduates scored significantly higher in math than their NLD dropout peers, Z = 2. 1, p = .04. In addition, NLD graduates scored significantly higher than their LD graduate peers in both reading and math Z = 3.07, p = .002, and Z = 3.53, p = .000, respectively.

DISCUSSION

The purpose of this study was twofold: (a) to determine the dropout rates and employment statistics of an LD sample in a rural school district and (b) to determine if these rates differed from the rates and statistics reported by colleagues in a study that used the same methodology in a larger, more urban, school district.

First, dropout rates found in this study are similar to the disturbing rates found by other studies. School record data showed that more than 36% of LD students from this semi-rural school district were dropping out before completing high school. Furthermore, the dropout rate among LD students was nearly three times the rate of their nonhandicapped peers. The data from interviews of some of these same youths revealed the bias inherent in follow-up research interview methodology: Because some types of subjects are more difficult to find than others, the resulting data may not provide a true picture of the phenomenon under study. In this study, dropouts proved very difficult to locate and interview, and they were underrepresented in the interview data set. In the future, we suggest that dropout rates be obtained and reported only on the basis of school records.

In terms of employment, the dropouts whom we could find did not seem to be paying a penalty for not having completed school. It might be, however, that the dropouts whom we were able to contact and who were willing to be interviewed were faring particularly well on the employment market. Or, it may be that, as Cobb and Crump (1984) found, it is just not important to have a high school diploma to get a job in a rural area.

Our second purpose was to compare these rural data to the urban data reported by Zigmond and Thornton (1985). First, we found the same relationship of school failure (especially failing ninth grade) to dropping out. Second, we found the same differential dropout effect (i.e., nearly twice the dropout rate in LD than in NLD samples), although the impact of dropping out on employment rates was not replicated.

Employment rates for these rural LD dropouts may have been higher because these young people were actually more competent than their urban counterparts. The rural LD students, as a group, were identified as LD at an earlier age and had higher WISC-R scores than the urban LD students described by Zigmond and Thornton (1985). The rural students, as a group, also obtained higher scores on the achievement measures in math and reading than the urban LD students. The rural population comprised considerably more white students than the urban population, as well as more female students.

The rural setting and economic status of this community also may have related significantly to the employment picture. This southern, semi-rural community had been reporting a considerably lower unemployment rate overall than the larger, more urban, setting from which Zigmond and Thornton collected their data. This lower overall unemployment rate strongly suggests that there may have been less competition for the lesser skilled jobs high school dropouts may seek. In addition, many LD young adults employed in our study were working in construction and building-related jobs as compared to the predominately service-related jobs of the urban LD youth (25%, 11 out of 44 students). Because the early 1980s were a time of tremendous building and growth in central Virginia, where this study took place, many construction jobs were available for nongraduates, whether LD or nonhandicapped.

This study contributes to a growing follow-up literature on LD students. It confirmed the high dropout rates among LD youth, but failed to confirm the negative impact of dropping out on subsequent adjustment and employment. As such, it underscored the importance of recognizing regional differences in postsecondary outcomes for handicapped students, and of the usefulness of a control sample of nonhandicapped students from whom to gain a perspective on follow-up findings. The study also pointed out the limitations of follow-up research, i.e., the biases that can arise from samples drawn randomly but still not appropriately representative of sex or race, or from a disproportionate find rate among subsets of a sample that might confuse the interpretation of the findings.

(Tables and other figures omitted)
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COPYRIGHT 1989 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:deBettencourt, Laurie U.; Zigmond, Naomi; Thornton, Helen
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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