States look to legislation to reduce dropout rates, but experts aren't convinced

Monday, March 20, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- Stephan Howell got in a lot of fights in high school and was suspended so often he couldn't get credit for some of his classes. By his senior year, he was told he would have to stay an extra year and a half if he wanted to graduate.

"I didn't know I was that far behind," the 18-year-old said.

Instead of staying, Howell dropped out, becoming one of the estimated 1 million high school students nationwide who fail to graduate each year, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington.

Pressured to boost graduation rates under the federal No Child Left Behind law, school districts nationwide are looking for ways to keep students like Howell in the classroom.

Many are turning to lawmakers for answers.

Indiana this month passed a bill that would allow students under 18 to drop out only for health, financial or legal reasons. New Hampshire's Senate gave preliminary approval to a measure that would raise the age at which students can drop out from 16 to 18.

Educators, lawmakers and social service agencies say finding a solution is crucial. Studies have found that dropouts are more likely to wind up in prison or on public assistance than those with diplomas. And schools can face sanctions under No Child Left Behind if their graduation rates fall short.

Difficult to enforce

But laws on school attendance can be difficult to enforce, said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

For example, more than two dozen states tie student attendance or achievement to driving privileges, according to the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, but Smink thinks the effects are "marginal" and that motor vehicle department have other things to do than track dropouts.

Some states have backed off legislative solutions: The South Dakota Senate in February rejected a bill that would have forced students to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18, rather than 16. Opponents said it would be counterproductive because teens who don't want to be there cause problems for other students. Similar legislation died in Iowa and West Virginia.

A better approach, some suggest, is to address the reasons students drop out.

The National Dropout Prevention Center says some students quit because they are bored, don't perform well academically or become pregnant. Others have no parental involvement in their education, have difficulty connecting with teachers or chafe under strict school attendance policies or rules about suspensions.

"It's a slow process of disengagement," said John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington.

Indiana's bill, which Gov. Mitch Daniels said he expects to sign, requires high schools to report some potential dropout factors, including the numbers of suspensions and freshmen not earning enough credits to become sophomores. Students would be given yearly reviews of their credits and counseled on how to catch up if they fall behind.

The legislation also would let students earn credit toward associate degrees while still in high school and allow community colleges to offer high school completion programs.

That provision might help Howell, who earned a GED after dropping out of Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. He works in a factory now but wants to take business classes and open a barbershop.

"I think it's a good idea," Howell said of Indiana's plan.

That's a start, said state Rep. Luke Messer, who sponsored Indiana's bill.

"We're not just going to be able to legislate away this problem," Messer said. "It's a problem that will be solved in the classroom with teachers, parents and students. What we do want to do, though, is do our best to give them the tools it takes to address this problem."

On the Net:

National Dropout Prevention Center:

Alliance for Excellent Education:

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