At-Risk Youth Topics
Preparing At-Risk Youth for the Future
A large fraction of American youth perform poorly in high school, and many of these youth fail to obtain a high school degree. The costs of failure in high school are growing, both for the individual student and for society overall. Mathematica researchers have conducted many of the most important studies of at-risk youth and interventions designed to address their educational needs.
We have studied a diverse array of dropout prevention approaches, ranging from small programs in a single school to those designed to address the dropout problem in clusters of schools or entire school districts. Mathematica's staff are also principal investigators for the What Works Clearinghouse comprehensive review of evaluations of dropout prevention programs. Our staff are assessing the strength of the evidence on the effectiveness of dropout prevention initiatives and synthesizing the lessons from these studies for policymakers and educators.
Youth who drop out of high school represent a loss of human potential. For the Office of Vocational and Adult Education within the U.S. Department of Education, Mathematica conducted case studies of six dropout recovery programs that help youth ages 16 to 21 return to school, earn a high school credential (either a diploma or GED), and prepare for further education and jobs. Drawing on site visit interviews and an analysis of school records, the study examined program goals and partners, admissions and attendance policies, instructional approaches and academic outcomes, methods for addressing participants' personal issues, and strategies to connect participants to specific postsecondary programs and jobs.
Many educational programs and services target youth at risk of dropping out. To help educators better identify these youth, Mathematica uses national longitudinal data sets to identify variables that can predict which students will eventually drop out. This information can be valuable for helping dropout prevention programs better target their services. By drawing on recent and older longitudinal data, we are examining how the predictors of dropping out have changed over time. This research builds on Mathematica's previous studies of factors that predict whether or not students will drop out.
Educators and policymakers have been exploring strategies to encourage students to develop useful social skills and habits and refrain from violent, disruptive, or self-destructive behaviors. We are evaluating the impact of mandatory random drug testing programs. In addition, our evaluation of social and character development is assessing programs designed to promote positive social and character development and reduce negative behaviors among elementary school children.
Many school districts have sought to create special environments, called alternative schools, that focus on encouraging highly at-risk students to graduate from high school. Our analysis revealed that programs with a more academic focus seemed to improve instruction, but alternative schools have had mixed success in achieving their primary objective. Although alternative school students were more likely to attend school, go to school more days, and earn more credits, after three years in these programs, only about 40 percent had graduated.
In preparing for postsecondary education, disadvantaged youth often must overcome a variety of hurdles. Many struggle to secure the requisite academic skills, financial assistance, or information about alternative postsecondary programs and application procedures. Mathematica has evaluated several programs designed to help high school students overcome these hurdles. Upward Bound provides instruction, tutoring, and postsecondary counseling during the school year and summer. Talent Search provides postsecondary guidance, including assistance in applying to specific postsecondary programs and in securing financial aid. The Quantum Opportunities Project was an intensive after-school program offering case management and mentoring, supplemental educational and developmental services, and financial incentives to participate. The results of these evaluations have informed efforts to refine the design of these three programs.
Schools are increasingly used to deliver a variety of programs for at-risk youth. For example, efforts to teach young people about responsible behavior through sex education programs have done little to reduce teenage sexual activity. As a result, abstinence education programs have been developed that emphasize abstinence from any sexual activity outside of marriage. These programs do not discuss the reproduction cycle or successful contraception methods, but focus solely on the social, economic, psychological, and health gains to be realized through abstinence. Our national evaluation found that youth in abstinence education were no more likely than their peers not participating in programs to have abstained from sex. They were also no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex.