Dropout rates high, but fixes under way

Survey: 9 of 10 students had passing grades when they left.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They're the kids who fall through the cracks, the ones who rarely get extra attention or tutoring - who, very often, disappear even from the statistics.

But high school dropouts are getting increasing attention as groundbreaking studies show how alarming the problem is. Nearly a third of high school students don't graduate on time; among blacks, Hispanics, and native Americans, it's almost half.

Now, a new survey, released Thursday, suggests that the problem, while deep, can be fixed. Most students don't drop out because they can't do the work. Nearly 90 percent had passing grades when they left school, according to the survey of dropouts by Civic Enterprises. Their major reason for opting out? The classes were too boring.

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"We've gone in and talked face to face with kids who have dropped out of school. What they're telling us debunks popular assumptions," says John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and one of the authors of the survey. "The problem is solvable."

Such findings will be key as states begin tackling the issue. Already this year, Massachusetts, Colorado, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Indiana, among others, are seeking to raise the legal dropout age or limit the reasons students can leave school.

Is it enough? A few experts question how much will be gained through simply mandating attendance, especially with often weak truancy programs and students who may rebel at the notion they can be forced to learn.

"The requirements for a diploma are the same anyway, whether a kid has to be in school or not," says Russell Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California in Santa Barbara who, like Mr. Bridgeland, emphasizes that the reasons kids leave school are complex and not always focused on academics.

While some drop out because they're too far behind, others are more worried about pregnancy, family issues, or dating trouble. "Any solution needs to be focused on the whole child," he says.

Indiana, for one, is looking beyond raising the legal dropout age. A bill awaiting the governor's signature mandates monitoring systems and offering ways for dropouts to complete their degree among peers, at community colleges.

"When we started this effort a year and a half ago, we got quite a bit of pushback," says Luke Messer, the Republican state representative who sponsored the Indiana bill. "But once people started to get a handle on the fact that the true statistics were closer to one-third of all students [dropping out] and in some school districts closer to 80 percent ... we've had broad bipartisan support."

Indeed, an accepted dismissal of the old ways of counting dropouts - under which most states reported 90 percent graduation rates or better - has helped spur action.

The tracking methodology is still flawed, say experts. Many schools require students to file paperwork to be counted as a dropout, statistically remove kids who enter prison or a GED program, or require that they have been enrolled in a school for a certain length of time. With sanctions for failing to improve test scores, some have even informally pushed low-performing students out.

Tracking dropouts is notoriously difficult, says Daniel Losen, a senior researcher with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, "but you need transparency to this data, broken down by major racial and ethnic groups. You need to know what's happening with English-language learners, and kids with disabilities, and poor kids."

Dr. Losen wants to see a major emphasis on getting better teachers into schools, and also cites research that a personalization of high school - helping kids feel engaged and part of a community - can be a big factor in keeping them in school. Draconian discipline, on the other hand, such as suspending kids for dress code violations or truancy, can force them out.

And despite the myriad reasons kids leave, academics are still key - especially for students who enter ninth grade already several grade levels behind and have a nearly impossible job catching up.

"It is a mistake to treat the dropout problem as a fundamentally different kind of problem than other problems in our schools - it's a different symptom of the same disease," says Jay Greene, head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas and author of several dropout studies.

Professor Greene believes the only way to significantly lower the dropout rate is to raise academic skills - whether through accountability or school-choice programs.

The Civic Enterprises survey found that 70 percent of dropouts were confident they could have graduated, 81 percent recognized graduating was vital to their success, and 66 percent said they would have worked harder if expectations were higher.

The study, commissioned by the Gates Foundation, surveyed more than 450 racially diverse 16- to 24-year-olds in 25 different locations with high dropout rates, including cities, suburbs, and rural towns.

"These kids are telling us that they're capable," Bridgeland says. "They're interested in having more challenge and more engagement, and they painted a picture of what school ought to look like."

Those thoughts are reflected in some of the recommendations the report's authors lay out, including adopting a curriculum that's more relevant and engaging and helping struggling students get more access to support. One of the most important, they say, is setting up early-warning systems - things like frequent absences, behavior problems, and grade retention are good indicators that a student might drop out later - and assigning adult advocates to help at-risk kids get the support they need.

Most everyone agrees the issue is serious. Research has shown that dropouts earn an average of $9,200 less a year than high school graduates, and are far more likely to need government assistance or end up in jail.

Representative Messer's legislation requires potential dropouts and their families to go through an exit interview and sign a statement that they're aware of the risks. "This idea that dropping out at 16 makes any sense is really decades out of date," he says. "In today's world, if you don't have a high school diploma you're setting yourself up for failure."

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