As the accountability movement gains momentum in education circles, high-stakes tests are sliding into place from Portland, Ore., to Raleigh, N.C.
Proponents say the tests, which tie results to graduation, will bolster student knowledge. But they may be having quite another effect: They could be inspiring some students not to master Algebra II, but to bail out of school.
In North Carolina, only about every other student will graduate on time this summer - a 17 percent drop from last year. Georgia, New Mexico, and South Carolina are also seeing large numbers of missing graduates.
No conclusive evidence exists linking dropout rates to the implementation of graduation tests - which 24 states now have in place or in the works - and some say the suggestion is simply antitest rhetoric. But increasingly, researchers say students scoring low on early versions of the tests are the ones throwing in the towel.
"For many kids it's a double assault: There's the recognition that they don't have the skills, and then there's the recognition that they're not going to be allowed to graduate," says Michelle Fine, an education researcher at the City University of New York who believes the new graduation standards may be spiking the dropout rate across the country.
Critics say schools have moved too quickly to put the new graduation standards in place, leaving a generation of high schoolers in the lurch. "The idea of all kids having a legal right of free access to public schools is waning," says Joan First, director of the National Coalition of Advocates for Students.
No definite link
Historically, of course, there is a litany of reasons why teens drop out: lack of encouragement from mom and dad, peer pressure, plain boredom. And some proponents of high-stakes tests dismiss the idea that the tests could be raising the dropout rate.
"Those who want to reduce standards because we've got more students dropping out - I don't buy that," says Phil Kirk, chairman of the North Carolina Board of Education. "We think all of these higher-standards measures are going to end up in a lower dropout rate."
But with less school time than ever set aside for academic counseling and tutoring, the students who need the most help analyzing "Twelfth Night" and understanding the rules of geometry are often getting the least, says John Rudder, dean of students at Broughton High School in Raleigh.
"Less and less attention is being paid to students having trouble, and that's one reason why we're seeing an increase in dropouts," Mr. Rudder says.
When dropouts "help" districts
What's more, as teacher salaries and school perks become interwoven with test outcomes, critics say some educators now turn away failing students. As a result, they say, American high schools are less welcoming to students with a penchant for mechanics rather than Moliere.
"A low-scoring kid dropping out is no longer a problem for a school," says Ms. First. "In many districts, it's an advantage for the school to have them drop out."
Still, some analysts say the number of kids missing high school graduation this year is a statistical anomaly that is likely to smooth out shortly. Besides, most of the "missing class" will just graduate late - many by next Christmas. And if GED diplomas are given the same weight as a high school diploma, studies show that the national dropout rate has actually gone down dramatically, from 30 percent in 1960 to less than 8 percent in 1999.
Moreover, in Milwaukee, where students now have to take one of the toughest state tests in the country to graduate, there's little evidence that the new requirement has had an effect on the dropout rate, says Milwaukee school board member John Gardner.
"Increasing the level of intensity actually has had a positive effect on a number of people," he says.
That's certainly the aim of the tests, which were intended to raise standards and make schools accountable for providing a good education. Many say that education-reform movements that began in the late 1960s had the undesired effect of lowering academic expectations. The result, some teachers say, is that students now feel entitled to not having to perform up to snuff.
"We're open to other ways [than testing] to assess student learning, but we're not going to give diplomas to people who can't read or write well," says Mr. Kirk. "We're trying to make a diploma mean something."
People who are against testing, he adds, often look to blame anything they can - including higher dropout rates - on testing, whether or not the facts support their theory.
What statistics are available often yield mixed conclusions. In Texas, for instance, the first state to make passing a tough test a graduation requirement, test scores for blacks and Hispanics have gone up significantly. But some studies also show that the state now has the second-largest dropout rate in the country.
Creating safety nets
At Broughton, Mr. Rudder says the new academic rigor may be having a demoralizing effect on students who already were struggling under the old standards. "There are always lots of student who know how to win at the high school game," he says. "But increasingly, the students who see themselves as academic losers are finding it harder to get help."
He says that Broughton, one of the city's oldest schools, tries to safeguard all its students. Intensive high school preparation programs for incoming freshmen and a high-tech tutoring center make it one of the most attentive in the district. Across from the brick Georgian school, the tutoring center is often full long into the evening, as teens wait on the porch for their turn at the computers.
"High school is not fun anymore," says Rudder. "It's serious business."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor