No Dropouts Left Behind: New Rules on Grad Rates

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It's a staggering statistic: one in four American teenagers drops out of school before graduation, a rate that rises to one in three among black and Hispanic students. But there's no federal system keeping track of the more than 7,000 American teenagers who drop out of school each day.

That appears to be changing. On Oct. 28, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings issued new rules that will force states to adopt a common system to monitor dropouts. Critics of No Child Left Behind have long accused the federal legislation not only of leading more schools to teach to the test, but of letting — or perhaps even encouraging — struggling students to drop out before they can lower average test scores. But Spellings is trying to address this problem with new regulations that will set a uniform graduation rate so that a high school's annual progress will now be measured both by how students perform on standardized tests and by how many of them graduate within four years.

Schools that do not improve their graduation rates will face consequences, such as having to pay for tutoring or replace principals. "For too long, we've allowed this crisis to be hidden and obscured," Spellings said in her announcement, made nearly seven years after No Child Left Behind was signed into law. "Where graduation rates are low, we must take aggressive action."

When No Child Left Behind was originally debated by legislators in 2001, states were given a break on graduation rates to help ease the bill's passage. In the years since, Democrats have argued that because of a lack of funding, some states have no choice but to set the bar low, since it's the only way they can be considered successful.

The Bush Administration, however, has now been prompted to action by a series of studies that have shown the severity of the country's dropout crisis. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world where children are now less likely to receive a high school diploma than their parents were, according to an Oct. 23 report by the Education Trust, a children's advocacy group based in Washington. At the same time, two-thirds of new jobs in the U.S. require at minimum a college degree. That education gap could lead to devastating outcomes if a lack of skilled workers leads to more industries heading overseas and more Americans facing poverty and crime-ridden streets. "We are letting every other country surpass us in educating children," says Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of America's Promise Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to improving education. "It's a risk not only to our economy, but our national security as well."

Once enacted in 2012, the new rules should give officials a much more accurate picture of just how bad the dropout epidemic is. Although high schools are currently required to meet graduation targets each year, states have been setting the bar for improvement, a system that has led to a lot of variation across the country. The Education Trust report found that in half of states, even the tiniest bit of progress was deemed sufficient. In a few states, simply not doing worse than the previous year was good enough. "A 50% graduation rate holding steady should not be viewed as progress by anyone," says Daria Hall, assistant director for K-12 policy development at the Education Trust. "We obviously need more reliable and meaningful statistics."

That's what Spellings and the Department of Education now aim to provide. Up until now, there was little the federal government could do to force schools to set higher standards. In fact, in 2005, all 50 states agreed to enact a uniform graduation rate, but only 16 eventually did. Now officials will require states to spell out how they will implement key elements of the federal law, formal plans that the Department of Education must approve. And officials are hoping more scrutiny will push schools to do better when it comes to dropouts. Not only will data be more consistent, it will also be made public, allowing parents and educators for the first time to make side-by-side comparisons of different schools as well as districts. Results can also be broken down by race and income level. Without such information, "we cannot compare Duluth to Denver," says Bob Balfanz, an education researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

But the new rules will go one step further than that. Not only will they identify schools that need support to improve, but they will help highlight reforms that are actually working. Take, for example, efforts in Georgia, where a graduation coach is assigned to each high school to ensure students stay on track. The program is only a few years old, but the state's graduation rate appears to be rising. The new call for federal data will help other states determine whether a program like Georgia's would be a good use of their resources. Plus, more accurate information may ultimately make the dropout problem "seem more manageable," Kondracke says. "We can't move forward until we can measure where we are now."

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