JITE v36n3 - Predicting Dropout Among Hispanic Youth and Children

Volume 36, Number 3
Spring 1999

Predicting Dropout Among Hispanic Youth and Children

Joan E. Friedenberg
Southern Illinois University

Although dropout experts suspect that a potential dropout can be identified at the elementary school level, most dropout prediction instruments have been targeted to high school students; a few are used for middle school students; and only one (to my knowledge) has been attempted with elementary school students. In the same way, documented dropout intervention and prevention efforts have, for the most part, been targeted to high school, and in some cases, middle school students, but rarely to elementary school children. In the case of Hispanic students, even fewer efforts (at all levels) are documented, despite the fact that Hispanics have the highest rates of dropout of any major population group in the U.S. The purpose of this pilot effort was to begin to develop a procedure for identifying potential dropouts among Hispanic youth and children. In doing this, it was first necessary to attempt to develop and field-test a procedure for identifying at-risk Spanish-dominant adolescents and then adapt that procedure for elementary school children.

As we consider over 500 years of Hispanic heritage in this country, we are reminded of the vast numbers of Spanish-speaking persons whose ancestors have lived in this land for centuries longer than most English-speaking Americans have. We are reminded that although many newly arriving Spanish-speaking persons enter our country because of economic and political turmoil, more than half of the more than 20 million were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. By the year 2050, the Hispanic population is expected to grow to over 50 million (Callison, 1994).

Despite a lengthy and expanding presence in our country, because of language problems, cultural differences, educational disadvantages, and discrimination, Hispanics as a group have simply not fared well enough (National Commission on Employment Policy, 1987). According to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) (1990):

  1. Hispanic persons are nearly twice as likely as majority white Americans to be poor
  2. Hispanic Americans are less likely to be employed in professional or technical jobs than other Americans;
  3. nearly one-fourth of Hispanics live below the poverty level;
  4. nearly 40% of Hispanic children live in poverty; and
  5. over 60% of Hispanic households headed by women live below the poverty level.

These dismal statistics are likely to be due to the relatively low educational attainment among Hispanics as a group. According to the NCLR (1990):

  1. Hispanics have the lowest high school completion rates of any major group in the United States;
  2. one-third of all Hispanics aged 18-21 have dropped out of school; and
  3. limited English proficient (LEP) Hispanics are more likely to drop out than English-dominant Hispanics. In addition, of Hispanics over 25, nearly half have dropped out.

In their response to the U.S. Senate for information on the nature and extent of dropout among Hispanic students, the U. S. General Accounting Office (1994) reported that:

  1. the dropout rate for Hispanics 16-24 years old is 31%, compared to 18% for Blacks, and 10 percent for whites;
  2. dropout rates for Blacks and whites have been declining for the past 20 years, but they have remained constant for Hispanics;
  3. there is a positive relationship between English ability and dropout, ranging from only 9.4% for English-dominant Hispanics, to 24% for Spanish-dominant Hispanics, to 52% for Hispanics who speak no English at all;
  4. there is a positive relationship between pregnancy and/or marriage and dropout among Hispanics; and
  5. among Hispanic populations, Mexican-Americans have the highest rates of dropout with 72.3%.

The dropout problem is even more critical in large cities. For example, in Chicago the dropout rate for Hispanics ranges from 50 to 56% (Azcoitia & Visco 1987). The California Postsecondary Commission estimated that 34% of Latino students who entered California high schools in 1979-1980 eventually dropped out (Callison, 1994). The Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) (1986) found that 45% of Hispanic students in Texas drop-out, compared to 34% of African-American, 33% of Asian, and 27% of white students in Texas. IDRA also found that nearly half of Texas Hispanic dropouts had not completed 9th grade when they discontinued schooling compared to only 18% of African-American and white dropouts who discontinued schooling before or during the 9th grade. Responding to this latter finding, IDRA underscores the need for early identification and intervention efforts designed specifically for Hispanic students.

The consequences of dropping out can be grave. For example, a survey of over 600 employers indicated that over 80% of all jobs screened out applicants without a high school diploma (Malizio & Whitney, 1984). Eighty-five percent of state prison inmates are high school dropouts (NCLR, 1985); 80% of high school dropouts have drug-related problems (NCLR, 1985); and 80% of mothers and 97% of fathers on public assistance are high school dropouts (NCLR, 1985). On the other hand, the benefits of an education can be striking, especially for Hispanics. There are no apparent wage differences between young Hispanic men and young majority white men when both have completed high school. Hispanic women who have finished high school earn only slightly less than majority white men who have completed high school and about 8% more than majority white women. Hispanics who have graduated from high school are 14% more likely to continue their education than majority white men (Campbell, Basinger, Dauner, & Parks, 1987). Interestingly, a college education can pay off better for Hispanics. According to Campbell (1987), with a four-year degree, an Hispanic person will earn 25-37% more than an Hispanic person who has only completed high school, while completing a four-year degree only helps majority whites earn 17.5% more. In addition, Hispanic women with a four-year degree will earn 25% more than majority white men without a college degree and even a little more than majority white men with a college degree. During the early 1980's when unemployment was very high, unemployment for both Hispanics and majority whites who had gone to college remained under 3%. Thus, the critical importance of keeping Hispanic children in school seems quite obvious.

The Positive Effects of Vocational and Technology Education Programs

Most studies addressing dropout prevention have found a positive relationship between vocational/technology education and school retention. The reasons for this are related to the fact that effective vocational/occupational programs are able to teach academic skills in a more hands-on, applied setting while also providing students with motivating skills that can lead them to gainful employment. Berryman (1980) reported that most high school dropouts are from the general curriculum. She found that the typical dropout performed far below others of his or her age, had been experiencing difficulties since elementary school, and generally felt alienated from school; while the typical vocational student possessed a positive attitude toward school, clear goals, and general satisfaction with life. Mertens, Seitz, and Cox (1982) found that among at-risk students, the more vocational education they had, the less likely they were to drop out. Perlmutter (1982) also showed that among matched groups of students in New York City, all of whom had applied to attend specialized vocational high schools, those who enrolled in the specialized high school were more likely to graduate. Azcoitia and Viso (1987) also found that students who enrolled in career-vocational programs were less likely to drop out than those in traditional school programs. The dropout rate was reduced from 24% to 6% percent with enrollment in vocational education. Similarly, dropout prevention programs in the Chicago and Oxford, Massachusetts schools, that stressed occupational training, reported substantially reduced dropout rates (Employment & Training Reporter, 1986). Hamilton (1987), having reviewed dropout prevention programs reported in the ERIC system, found that every successful program included some form of occupational training. In his extensive Dropout Prevention Handbook, Callison (1994, p. 9) states, "Not only do we have to keep updating our vocational opportunities for students, but we need to emphasize technology." William Johnston (cited in Callison, 1994, p. 9) from the Hudson Institute states: "The haves and the have nots in the year 2000 are going to be defined by their skills …. It's going to be the technologically able versus the technologically unable." Peterson (1987, p. 9) reported in the Los Angeles Times that technological skills will be needed for basic survival and that in order to succeed, people will need to "be able to manage people, adapt to technological change, think analytically, and communicate effectively."

Few vocational or technology education programs, however, are available until the 11th grade, too late to benefit most potential dropouts, and very few are available at the elementary grades when many researchers now suspect at-risk students actually begin to develop the risk factors that lead to dropout. Even the new and well-publicized "tech-prep" programs, which characterize themselves as dropout prevention efforts, normally begin operating at the 11th grade. In addition, such programs are almost never available in bilingual (Friedenberg, 1995) or even multicultural formats (Rios, 1992). Finally, it has been well documented that LEP persons are frequently excluded from participating in vocational and technology education programs, making it impossible for the most at-risk Hispanics (i.e., those with limited English proficiency) to enjoy the possible retention and dropout recovery benefits of vocational and technology education (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1987; Friedenberg 1987; Fleischman, Willette, Hanberry, & Hopstock, 1988; Fleischmann & Willette, 1988; Woodruff, 1991).

The potential role of vocational and technology education in preventing Hispanic dropout argues both for the development of bilingual/multicultural vocational and technology education programs, as well as the development of predictive instruments that might steer at-risk Hispanic students to these or other appropriate programs.

Dropout Indicators

The low educational attainment among Hispanic persons in our country has become so critical an issue as to motivate three presidential administrations to propose special commissions to examine it. Yet, few, if any, viable procedures have been developed to help identify potential dropouts specifically among the Hispanic population. That is, despite the fact that numerous dropout identification procedures have been developed and even field-tested and validated, few have taken language and culture into consideration, or specifically field-tested or validated these procedures with Hispanic or any other language minority populations.

In his extensive review of 13 dropout identification procedures used throughout the country, Weber (1989) discusses the importance of not relying on the subjective judgments of individual educators or even on more formalized single or dual variable decision rules. Weber explains that although multidimensional prediction rules yield fallible results, the dangers of using too few variables include results with many false positives (i.e., students who were predicted to have dropped out but who completed). Weber stresses the importance of minimizing false positives because resources are too limited to be wasted on them and because using multidimensional prediction rules helps identify those most at risk. In addition, he stresses the importance of field-testing and adapting even the most reliable instruments to local needs and conditions.

In the development of his Dropout Prediction Scale, Weber (1989) was able to identify three general factors and several sub-factors or variables that can be used to help identify potential dropouts. These include:

  1. school-related factors (attendance, grades, academic achievement, reading skills, and interest in school and school work)
  2. personal factors (age relative to classmates, disciplinary problems, and extenuating circumstances, such as pregnancy)
  3. home family factors (economically disadvantaged, broken home/single-parent family)

In addition to these dropout indicators, Callison (1994) reports that two-thirds of substance abusers are dropouts. Considering these factors, the high dropout rate among Hispanics is not surprising. According to the NCLR (1990), Hispanics are 2-1/2 times more likely than majority white Americans to have two or more risk factors, including single-parent families, low parent education, limited English proficiency, low family income, low grades, and high absenteeism. In addition, of Hispanics in school, one-third in the first to fourth grades, 40% in the fifth to eighth grades, and 43% in the tenth grade are enrolled below the expected grade level for their age. Being retained once increases the chances of dropping out by 50% and being retained twice increases the chances of dropping out by 90% (NCLR, 1985). Not only does retaining (i.e., leaving back) students not yield any learning benefits (Shepard & Smith, 1989), it has been shown actually to contribute to dropout (Natriello, Pallas, McDill, McPartland, & Royster, 1988).


Normally, one would test the reliability of a dropout prediction instrument longitudinally, making our predictions and waiting for students to drop out or to complete. However, in a pilot study of elementary school students, this approach was not feasible given the lapse of time required between prediction and subsequent dropout. As a result, another approach was used which may have reduced the reliability of this pilot effort, but produced additional findings that would not have been available had a longitudinal approach been attempted. The basic approach used was to compare the responses to a dropout prediction survey administered to Hispanic youth who had already dropped out with the responses of Hispanic elementary school children.

In considering the responses of the youth who had already dropped out, two questions were addressed.

  1. What percentage of the dropouts would have been identified or predicted accurately based on their retrospective responses to the survey of the Dropout Prediction Scale?
  2. What, if any, patterns emerged among this group of respondents that might help researchers and educators predict dropout among this population in the future?

In considering the results of the elementary school respondents, three questions were addressed.

  1. Can the responses of children be compared with the responses of older dropouts in order to predict dropout among children?
  2. Is the survey of the Dropout Prediction Scale a viable instrument for children even in a modified (for children) form?
  3. What, if any, patterns emerged among this group of respondents that might help researchers and educators better predict dropout among this population?

Two final questions were addressed when considering the results of both sets of surveys:

  1. What implications does this pilot effort have for future research on at-risk Hispanic or elementary populations, or both?
  2. What implications, if any, does this pilot effort have for public school practices when serving at-risk Hispanic populations?


For comparison purposes, there were two sets of subjects for this study, the dropouts and the elementary school children. The dropouts consisted of a convenient sample of 25 disadvantaged Mexican youth residing in a low-income housing area in Southern California. All had dropped out of high school and at the time of the study were participating in a dropout recovery effort sponsored by a local community-based organization. All were Spanish-dominant; 11 were male and 14 were female. Their ages ranged from 16 to 22. Because of their limited abilities in English, it was assumed that they were, likely, immigrants from Mexico who had received some public schooling in the U.S. Due to the sensitivity of the issue of immigration status in that particular local area, place of birth and immigration status were not addressed intentionally.

The second set of subjects were 25 Hispanic fourth, fifth, and sixth graders at a local elementary school. The school's population is predominantly low-income, Mexican (over 90 percent) with the remaining 10% consisting of Asian, African-American, and majority white children. The school, which is in very poor condition, is located in the same area where the dropouts lived, one of the main centers of local gang activity. The school was slated for demolition in one year.

Instruments Used

Two main instruments were used for this study, although one of the instruments was adapted in three different ways. In order to survey the Spanish-dominant youth who had already dropped out, the student survey from the Dropout Prediction Scale, developed by Weber (1989), was modified appropriately for students who had dropped out already (e.g., instead of asking, "What grade are you in?" and "How old are you?" they were asked, "What grade were you in when you dropped out?" and "How old were you …?", etc.) and translated into Spanish. In addition, because most respondents were poor readers even in Spanish, the survey was administered to them orally in an interview format.

Two instruments were used with the elementary school children. First, the Dropout Prediction Instrument and Related Decision Rule, developed by Nichols (1988) for the Harrisburg, PA School District was used and adapted for the elementary level to obtain basic information about the students' attendance, years repeated, GPA, discipline, and parents in the home. All information for this brief, five question survey was obtained from the students' cumulative files. Based on the results of this brief survey, 25 students (those with the highest number of at-risk factors and a random selection of students without at-risk factors) were selected for further study using another modification of the Dropout Prediction Scale by Weber (1989). The purpose of using two instruments for the elementary school children was twofold. First, it helped to pinpoint the most at-risk students from the larger pool and second, it enabled me to compare their self-reported answers with information actually found in their files so that I could make some judgments about the reliability of young children's responses. Modifications of Weber's Dropout Prediction Scale included wording simplifications for elementary level children and Spanish translation. Permission to interview the students was secured from the district and school level administrations, the local school board, the students' teachers, parents (via signed parental permission slips in Spanish), and the students. Participation was voluntary.


Twenty-five dropouts were administered the survey portion of the Dropout Prediction Scale for the main purposes of field-testing the appropriateness of this instrument for this particular population of students and for creating a basis of comparing the responses of 25 elementary school children. Later, the survey was modified "down" for elementary school children and administered to 25 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Following are findings for each of the two groups.

Findings for the Dropouts

Of the 25 dropouts who completed the modified and translated version of the Dropout Prediction Scale survey, 15 (60%) were classified correctly as potential dropouts (i.e., scoring 5 or above on the survey), according to their responses. Interestingly, of the 10 whose scores would not have identified them as potential dropouts, 7 were young women, 5 of whom had few or no at-risk factors other than having been pregnant. Although pregnancy is a common risk factor among other populations, it is, apparently, a strong enough factor among young Mexican women that no other factors were necessary to cause dropout. If pregnancy had been considered a single deciding factor in predicting dropout among this group, 80% would have been predicted accurately.

Another interesting pattern that emerged among this population of Mexican dropouts was an exceptionally high rate of moving and school changes. Of the 25 surveyed, 20 (80%) had moved and changed schools at least once and 11 (44%) had actually moved and changed schools 3 or more times. In addition, responses seemed to suggest a possible correlation between number of moves and grade point average.

Findings for the Elementary School Children

Before administering the survey portion of the Dropout Prediction Scale, the cumulative files for all fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the school were examined, using the Dropout Prediction Instrument and Related Decision Rule, developed by Nichols (1988). This instrument was employed for several reasons. First, it has been evaluated as having a relatively high predictive value (Weber 1989). Second, it provided a basis for the intentional selection of at-risk students to be later interviewed using the Weber instrument (as opposed to relying solely on the judgments of teachers). Third, it provided a way to check the reliability of some of the children's self-reported answers on the survey.

The Nichols instrument was used with the cumulative files of all 193 elementary school children in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. Of these, only nine (about 5%) scored five or above (the cut-off point for indicating potential dropout). This number of potentially at-risk students was surprisingly low for any school, let alone a school of predominantly disadvantaged children located in a known center for gang activity. There are several possible explanations. First, it is certainly possible that identifying potential dropouts at such a young age simply cannot be carried out using conventional instruments, despite attempts to modify them "down" for relevance and comprehensibility in an elementary school context. That is, perhaps many more of these children are, indeed, at-risk, but the at-risk factors exhibited by young children would not be picked up by existing instruments or procedures. A second possibility is that the low percentage was the result of a recent quasi-restructuring of the attendance zones for this school, resulting in the removal of about 100 students to other schools. Informal rumors about this restructuring issue have suggested that the "roughest kids" were the ones relocated, in an attempt to neutralize the area (i.e., against gang violence) and to prepare the community gradually for the impending demolition of the school.

After the Nichols instrument was administered, children whose scores were 3.5 or over and less than 2 were selected randomly to be interviewed using the survey portion of the Weber instrument. (It should be noted that randomization was not strict and was influenced by factors such as attendance on the days of the interviewing and whether or not individual students had turned in their parental permission forms to participate.)

Of the six students interviewed who scored between 4 and 5 on the Nichols instrument, only one scored as high on the Weber instrument. In fact, children scored the same on the Nichols and Weber instruments only 20% of the time, while scoring a good deal higher on the Nichols instrument 48% of the time and higher on the Weber instrument 32% of the time. The fact that nearly half the students interviewed rated themselves more favorably than their files would indicate, led me to examine specific areas of discrepancy on the two instruments. I found appreciable discrepancies in reported absences in 12 of the 25 respondents (48%) with 11 of the 12 minimizing their number of absences. In the same way, I also found appreciable discrepancies in reported grade point averages in 12 of the 25 respondents (48%) with 11 enhancing their grades. It was not known whether students reported inaccurate information intentionally, perhaps to avoid embarrassment, or whether they simply had inaccurate perceptions of their behaviors and achievement in school. Either way, self-report may be a questionable procedure to use at such a young age.

Another critical issue that surfaced when administering the Weber instrument was the inability of most young respondents to consider questions about their futures. In fact, 24 of the 25 respondents (96%) simply could not answer certain sections of the interview. For example, most students had a good deal of difficulty considering questions relating to future marriage and family. They simply had no idea at this point in their lives when and if they would get married, have children, or go to college. In addition, many respondents seemed unable to understand some of the implications of these questions. For example, some respondents reported that they intended to go to college, but in other questions were unsure as to whether they would complete high school. Similarly, a small number of respondents reported that they might begin having children when they turned 20, while in another question they reported that they would probably get married after they turned 27. Although it is possible that these responses were intentional, it seems as likely that these children have never really considered their futures seriously and were simply unable to respond in a meaningful way.

Like the older group of respondents, there was a high rate of moving and changing schools. Twenty-two of the 25 respondents (88%) had changed schools at least once and half changed schools 2 times or more. Another pattern meriting further investigation was a slight tendency for some of the children with high grades and a low number of other at-risk factors to have extremely high absenteeism (i.e., 11-21 days). This pattern occurred more often with girls than with boys.

Conclusions and Discussion

The purpose of this pilot effort was to examine issues related to the identification of potential dropouts among Hispanic youth and young children. The results of the survey of dropouts suggested that pregnancy alone may be a strong enough risk factor to cause dropout for this particular population. It is very important to note that culture plays a critical role in many risk factors, but it may play an even stronger role in how a pregnancy might be handled. The reader is reminded that the subjects for this study were Spanish-dominant Mexican immigrants and that other Latino populations, including later generation Mexican-Americans, might have reacted differently to pregnancy (i.e., might not have left school). The inability of nearly all the elementary school children to even contemplate when or if they might start having a family suggests that teen pregnancies are rarely planned. Since no high school completers were included in the survey, there was no way to know whether the pregnant dropouts were representative of most pregnant girls and women from this population or whether just as many Mexicans who are pregnant stay in school. This issue is obviously one that merits further study. If the results show that most pregnancies among this population lead to dropping out, then it may become necessary to weight certain variables, such as pregnancy, based on local conditions (i.e., culture), as well as to address the issue of pregnancy among Mexican girls and women in schools, social service agencies, and community-based organizations by providing effective and culturally sensitive bilingual sex education along with mechanisms to continue schooling during and after a pregnancy.

The results of this survey also suggested a high degree of moving around and changing schools. This, again, could be related to culture and economic situations. Future study of this tendency is merited, as well as attention to its possible direct effects on grades. If moving around is found to be a critical detrimental factor, parents and teachers should be informed.

The results of the survey of elementary school children suggest that self-report is not a viable tool for dropout identification among children. In addition, most children were not really sophisticated enough to consider, thoughtfully, questions concerning their futures. Therefore, the survey portion of the Dropout Prediction Scale does not seem to be useful for young children. However, the Dropout Prediction Instrument and Related Decision Rule seems to be more useful for elementary school children and merits further use and study. The Dropout Prediction Scale, in its translated form, does merit further use among older Hispanic populations; however, careful validation procedures are needed to determine whether scoring should be altered to accommodate possible cultural factors (e.g., pregnancy, high absenteeism, and frequent moving).

Implications for Future Research

The study presented here was intended to begin to identify ways to predict dropout among Hispanic youth and young children. It was a preliminary effort that sought to test the appropriateness of adapted dropout prediction procedures and materials for Spanish-dominant Hispanic youth and children. In the absence of a more sophisticated, quasi-experimental and longitudinal design with larger pools of subjects, the findings presented here are, at best, tentative. The mere gravity of the dropout problem among Hispanics and its implications for our country demonstrate the critical need for serious attention to this issue in the form of research. The preliminary study conducted here provides a foundation for future research and development related to procedures for the early prediction and prevention of dropout among Hispanic Americans.

Implications for Vocational and Technology Teacher Education

The implications of this effort for teacher education are many. Vocational and technology teacher education programs need to infuse into their curricula more demographic information concerning the problems and needs of Hispanics in the U. S., including, of course, the gravity of the dropout problem. In the same way, future teachers should be made aware of the positive relationship between vocational/technology education and school retention. Future teachers need to learn ways to modify existing materials and techniques to better serve Hispanic students. Courses and textbooks in vocational special needs education must abandon the notion that special needs is synonymous with special education and do more to include in-depth material related to other populations of special students. There is also a need for vocational and technology education programs to remove any barriers that might prevent participation based on limited English proficiency. Given the large and growing number of Hispanics in our country, it makes sense for teacher education programs to require or strongly encourage (with monetary incentives) teachers and teacher educators to learn Spanish. Additionally, stronger recruitment of skilled bilingual persons into our teacher education programs is sorely needed. Finally, given that the research suggests a positive relationship between vocational/technology education and school retention for older students, it makes sense that future research and development efforts include the development and evaluation of bilingual/multicultural technology education activities for elementary school children as a possible intervention for the high rate of dropout among Hispanic students. To do this, technology teacher education faculty should work with bilingual elementary teacher education faculty to help them infuse technology education concepts, activities, and materials into the existing elementary curriculum.

If the needs of at-risk Hispanic students can be met early enough to prevent their dropping out, their chances for higher educational attainment and success in the job market are greatly increased and the chances for a brighter future for the next 500 years of Hispanic heritage in this country may, in fact, be realized.


Joan E. Friedenberg is the Professor in the Department of Linguistics Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.


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Tracy Gilmore