Teen Drivers Must Make Grade

More states are tying driver's license approval to a student's school record

Ask any parent: Nothing motivates a teenager better than driving privileges. State legislatures - apparently filled with parents of teens - are passing laws requiring regular school attendance and good academic performance before granting driver's licenses to minors.

If students miss too much school for no legitimate reason or fail too many classes, they won't be driving Dad's Oldsmobile for a while.

In an effort to combat high dropout rates and rampant truancy, 15 states have passed laws linking licenses to minimum school attendance or academic performance, the Education Commission of the States in Denver says. But critics say states are rushing headlong into a Band-Aid solution that has a questionable track record.

West Virginia pioneered the idea in 1988, but there has been a recent surge in interest among legislators nationwide: In the past year, 12 states passed similar laws.

President Clinton, himself the father of a teenage daughter, recently proposed expanding the legislative trend to include drug tests for minors before they are granted licenses.

"Denial of driving privileges to those who engage in illegal drug use can be a powerful incentive to stay away from and off drugs," he says.

Many states already keep track of attendance and grade records to determine eligibility for sports and, in many cases, could easily include licenses. Many legislators see it as an inexpensive deterrent to the vexing problem of truancy and poor academic achievement.

"This is not a particularly difficult thing to do nor particularly expensive," says Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States. "It's something that's easy to plug in."

Yet the effectiveness of this legislation has been difficult to determine. Even though some states have a long track record with the laws, there is little more than anecdotal evidence that they are keeping kids in school.

"There's no hard-core research out there, and the anecdotal evidence is pretty mixed," Ms. Christie says.

"It's hard to gauge because this is just one thing in a whole pot of things. In one year, a district or state may add this and 10 other truancy-prevention methods at the same time. That makes it hard to identify what is responsible for any changes."

In West Virginia, the dropout rate fell just after the law took effect. Eight years later, almost exactly the same percentage of students are dropping out as before the law was passed. No one knows, of course, what would have happened without the law.

West Virginia officials say students are aware of the law and are careful not to accumulate 10 consecutive unexcused absences or 15 total absences in one semester. That's the limit before the right to a driver's license is affected.

But Patrick Murphy, the former state legislator who proposed the West Virginia bill, says some school officials are not applying the law as it was intended. Instead of using it as a motivator for disinterested students, they see it as an excuse to get rid of "problem students" who may be pulling down overall test scores.

Critics see the legislative trend as another attempt at a quick fix for a problem with deep roots. "Dropping out doesn't just happen when kids turn 16," says Marty Duckenfield of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. "You can see the seeds in first and second grade."

The solutions for truancy need to be more individual, Ms. Duckenfield argues. "A state has every right to choose who gets a driver's license and who doesn't," she says. "But if [you] use that to solve the dropout problem, it's not going to work."

In fact, Florida has concluded that its six-year-old license-restriction law was ineffective. The legislature let the law expire this year. The problem, state officials say, was a lack of uniform enforcement statewide.

Meanwhile, several states are looking to take their laws another step. Virginia and Tennessee have passed measures mandating students make "satisfactory academic progress" before getting a license.

This will be even harder to enforce than the original laws, predicts Christie. "Attendance is pretty cut and dried, and you can set the parameters. But defining satisfactory performance is more subjective," she says.

Virginia attempted to define "academic good standing" as completing at least 70 percent of "all assigned homework and other coursework for the current academic year." That measure was shelved early this year.

While the legislative crank continues to turn and interest in such laws mounts, opponents say the dropout problem is not going away.

"Legislators like to look like they are doing something," Duckenfield says. "But the message behind these laws is not that school is important but that the drivers' license is important. There's no correlation between those two things."

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