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An at-risk student is a student who, by virtue of their circumstances, is statistically more likely than others to fail academically. Those determining the criteria of at-risk status often focus on ethnic minorities, those who are academically disadvantaged, those who are disabled, those who are characterized by low socioeconomic status, and students on a probationary status over past behavioral issues.

History and characteristics

The term "at-risk" came into use after the 1983 article "A Nation at Risk", published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The article described United States society as being economically and socially endangered.[1] At-risk students are those students who have been labeled, either officially or unofficially, as being in danger of academic failure. In the U.S., different states define "at-risk" differently, so it is difficult to compare the varying state policies on the subject.

The National Center for Education Statistics lists the following factors that lead to an "at-risk" label for students:[2]

  • low socioeconomic status
  • living in a single-parent home
  • changing schools at non-traditional times
  • below-average grades in middle school
  • being held back in school through grade retention
  • having older siblings who left high school before completion
  • negative peer pressure[3]

Students who are labeled as "at-risk" face a number of challenges that other students do not. According to Becky Smerdon's research for the American Institutes for Research, students, especially boys, with low socioeconomic status (and therefore more likely to be labeled "at-risk") show feelings of isolation and estrangement in their schools.[4] Educational philosopher Gloria Ladson-Billings claimed in a 2006 speech that the label itself actually contributes to the challenges. Her view is that, "We cannot saddle these babies at kindergarten with this label and expect them to proudly wear it for the next 13 years, and think, 'Well, gee, I don't know why they aren't doing good.'"[5]

Minority students are much more likely to be labeled "at-risk" than white students. In addition, minority students are more likely to be identified as having mental retardation. Drop-out rates are much higher for minorities, and the number of college-bound African American students has plummeted.[6][dubious]

The problem of "at-risk" is not one that affects only the individuals labeled as such. Society as a whole is affected when such a large portion of the population is at-risk. Many of the approaches currently used to remediate at-risk students are attempts at a quick-fix. Such approaches are not a viable way to alleviate the problem that faces society.[7]


The sooner at-risk students are identified, the more likely that preventative "remediation" measures will be effective. Examples of remediation include:[8]

  • remediation programs
  • tutoring
  • child care services
  • medical care
  • substance abuse awareness programs
  • bilingual instruction
  • employment training
  • close follow up procedures on truancy and absenteeism.

Schools also try to work with parents to help them learn ways to help their at-risk child.

Finally, the government[attribution needed] is now recognizing that a decline in federal financial support and higher standards have been having a negative impact on at-risk students. Therefore, intervention programs that support struggling school districts and help their at-risk students as well as incentives for school districts that successfully help their at-risk students have been established.

At-risk programs

Title I is one of the largest federal programs in K-12 education. funded at more than $26.4 billion in the 2008 school year.[citation needed]

The Title I program sends money to school districts based on census counts of children from low-income families and children in several smaller categories, such as foster children, homeless children and those living in correctional institutions.

Most schools use the money to hire teachers, purchase supplies, and fund intervention programs to help the at-risk students[citation needed]. ManyTemplate:Quantify schools use the Title I program as reading intervention for struggling students.[citation needed]

Reading Rockets is another program that supports the needs of at-risk students.[9]

See also


  1. Placier, Margaret L. (1993). The Semantics of Policy Making: The Case of "At Risk." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 15(2): 380.
  2. Spring, J. (2010). American Education. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Thornburg, K., Hoffman, S., & Remeika, C. (1991). Youth at Risk; Society at Risk. The Elementary School Journal, 91(3), 203.
  4. Smerdon, B. (2002). Students' Perceptions of Membership in Their High Schools. Sociology of Education, 75(4): 290.
  5. Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools.
  6. Thornburg, K., Hoffman, S., & Remeika, C. (1991). Youth at Risk; Society at Risk. The Elementary School Journal, 91(3), 205.
  7. Thornburg, K., Hoffman, S., & Remeika, C. (1991). Youth at Risk; Society at Risk. The Elementary School Journal, 91(3), 206.
  8. Donnelly, Margarita (1987). At-Risk Students (ERIC Identifier: ED292172). ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. Eugene, OR. Retrieved August 5, 2008.


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