The term at-risk is often used to describe students or groups of students who are considered to have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school. The term may be applied to students who face circumstances that could jeopardize their ability to complete school, such as homelessness, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, serious health issues, domestic violence, transiency (as in the case of migrant-worker families), or other conditions, or it may refer to learning disabilities, low test scores, disciplinary problems, grade retentions, or other learning-related factors that could adversely affect the educational performance and attainment of some students. While educators often use the term at-risk to refer to general populations or categories of students, they may also apply the term to individual students who have raised concerns—based on specific behaviors observed over time—that indicate they are more likely to fail or drop out.
When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what “at-risk” is referring to. In fact, “at-risk” can encompass so many possible characteristics and conditions that the term, if left undefined, could be rendered effectively meaningless. Yet in certain technical, academic, and policy contexts—such as when federal or state agencies delineate “at-risk categories” to determine which students will receive specialized educational services, for example—the term is usually used in a precise and clearly defined manner. For example, states, districts, research studies, and organizations may create at-risk definitions that can encompass a broad range of specific student characteristics, such as the following:
- Physical disabilities and learning disabilities
- Prolonged or persistent health issues
- Habitual truancy, incarceration history, or adjudicated delinquency
- Family welfare or marital status
- Parental educational attainment, income levels, employment status, or immigration status
- Households in which the primary language spoken is not English
In most cases, “risk factors” are situational rather than innate. With the exception of certain characteristics such as learning disabilities, a student’s perceived risk status is rarely related to his or her ability to learn or succeed academically, and largely or entirely related to a student’s life circumstances. For example, attending a low-performing school could be considered a risk factor. If a school is underfunded and cannot provide essential services, or if its teaching quality and performance record are poor, the school could conceivably contribute to higher rates of student absenteeism, course failures, and attrition.
Generally speaking, the behaviors and characteristics associated with being an “at-risk student” are, in most cases, based on research and observable patterns in student demographics and school performance. Numerous academic studies have demonstrated correlations between certain risk factors and a student’s likelihood of succeeding academically, graduating from high school, or pursuing postsecondary education. Such correlations have given rise to a variety of reform strategies aimed at identifying student risk factors and then intervening with assistance and support intended to help “at-risk” students succeed academically and complete school.
In terms of general education-reform trends, schools are increasingly taking a proactive approach to at-risk students (early identification of risk factors followed by support), rather than a passive or reactive approach (allowing students to drop out, fall behind their peers academically, or fail courses before intervening). The basic rationale motivating these reforms is that schools can help at-risk students by increasing exposure to “success factors”—such as the personal attention and guidance of an adult, for example—and mitigating any risk factors that are within their control, such as reducing expulsions and grade retentions, which can increase the chances that a student will drop out.
In addition to being imprecise, some educators dislike the term at-risk because they believe it can give rise to overgeneralizations that may stigmatize students, particularly when the term is applied to large, diverse groups such as minorities or students from lower-income households. They may also fear that such labels may perpetuate the very kinds of societal perceptions, generalizations, and stereotypes that contribute to students being at greater risk of failure or of dropping out in the first place. If minorities or students from lower-income households are consistently labeled “at-risk,” for example, schools and educators may respond by treating them in ways that could inadvertently perpetuate their at-risk status. For example, schools may enroll non-English-speaking students in specialized programs that separate them from their English-speaking peers. While the intention in this case is to provide the specialized language instruction that the students need, the program may also give rise to feelings of cultural isolation, or it may lower academic expectations so that participating students fall further and further behind their peers academically. Consequently, these students may drop out because they don’t feel connected to the larger school culture or see the value of education, or they may lose hope that they will ever catch up or graduate (for a more detailed discussion of this specific example, see dual-language education). Research on stereotype threat and the Pygmalion effect has provided some evidence to support these general claims.
Many educators and researchers have also noted that different individuals within the same demographic or risk categories may have very different innate abilities, familial resources, support systems, or other personal or situational characteristics that can lead them to be more resilient or successful than others; consequently, these students would be less “at-risk” than many of their peers. In this view, at-risk is an overly broad label that inevitably fails to take into account the true complexity of any particular student’s situation. The concern is that, if schools act on general categorical assumptions, rather than diagnosing the specific learning needs of individual students and using that information to provide targeted academic support or more personalized learning experiences, the support they provide to students may be less useful or effective.