Counting high school dropouts

New rules would wisely require states to figure the high school dropout rate the same way.

If you can measure it, you can manage it. That business axiom can work in education, too, but it hasn't been applied to the alarming rate of high school dropouts. No one really knows the extent of this problem because it's measured in so many ways.

For years the accepted wisdom was that about 85 percent of students graduate from America's public high schools. But more recent research finds it's closer to 70 percent. And in America's 50 largest cities, only half of high-schoolers walk across that stage at the end of 12th grade, according to a study this month by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

The problem could actually be more grave, but how much more is a mystery. That's because states don't calculate their dropout rates in the same way, and many of their formulas obscure the size of the challenge.

New Mexico, for instance, counts only students who start and complete their senior year – but doesn't track freshmen, sophomores, and juniors. In some of America's high schools, students aren't listed as dropouts until they fill out a form.

This week, the Department of Education has taken an important step toward fixing this national education crisis. Proposed regulations put out for public comment require states to count graduates in a uniform way: those who gain a traditional diploma after four years. The rules are a smart way to update the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) without congressional action, which looks unlikely this year.

The proposed rules don't set a graduation target, but they do require states to demonstrate "continuous and substantial improvement" from year to year. States, school districts, and individual schools must publish their data, and they must track their students as they move through high school. The proposed method ought to get buy-in, because the formula was approved by all 50 governors in 2005.

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the "Nation at Risk" report that warned of an education system "eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." America pays the price not only in underperformance, but in uncompleted schooling.

Dropouts pay high personal tolls. They are twice as likely to be jobless as graduates, three times more likely to live in poverty, and eight times more likely to be jailed.

The nongraduating class of 2007 will cost the nation more than $300 billion in lost wages, taxes, and productivity. Increasing male graduation rates by just 5 percent would save nearly $8 billion a year in crime-related costs.

Even measured uniformly, this problem is tough. No one reason explains why kids drop out. Studies cite a disconnect with school, boredom, academic challenges, and the burden of circumstances – like sudden parenthood.

And yet, most dropouts are students who could have succeeded in school, and who believe they could have succeeded. With more discipline, rigor, and caring – with more investment in teachers and schools (especially in urban areas) – this situation can be turned around.

Just look at Somverville, Mass., which reduced its dropout rate by 50 percent in two years. It pinpointed ninth grade as an intervention year, for instance, and added Saturday school for at-risk students.

Counting dropouts correctly will help America own up to the severity of this problem, and then hopefully take ownership of it.

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