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Article of Interest - Dropouts

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Plan Aims to Dissuade Dropouts
Proposed reform won't let 16-year-olds quit school.
by Kim L. Hooper, The Indiana Star, October 5, 2003
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Raising the minimum age at which students can leave high school without a diploma could improve Indiana's overall graduation rate and reduce the number of dropouts statewide, according to a new proposal.

The proposal is tucked inside a massive education reform plan intended to link early childhood learning; elementary, middle and high school instruction; and higher education.

Called Indiana's P-16 Plan for Improving Student Achievement, the proposed restructuring is being considered as state education officials implement a new way to calculate high school graduation rates.

"We can't improve on the number of kids going to college if we lose them before they even get there by dropping out of high school," said Stan Jones, the state's commissioner for higher education.

Later this month, Indiana's Education Roundtable is expected to make final recommendations on the proposal. Among other goals, it seeks to keep students in high school as long as possible -- and help them earn diplomas.

It's a costly reform, one that has yet to have a price tag attached -- which bothers some who otherwise support the P-16 proposal.

"The last time I looked, the state coffers weren't getting any larger," said Pat Kiely, president of the Indiana Manufacturers Association and a roundtable member. "If we don't take it seriously, the legislature won't either, and it will be nothing more than a plan on paper."

Because current graduation rates are essentially estimates based on enrollment declines, Indiana has no way to form an accurate picture of how many students drop out annually. State education officials estimate that more than 20,000 high school students don't graduate each year.

Under current law, a student can leave school for nonacademic reasons at age 18. But state law also allows students to leave as early as 16 with permission from parents or guardians.

The proposal would eliminate that provision and raise the minimum dropout age to 18.

School officials say a change is needed to make it tougher for students to quit prior to graduation. For low-income students, getting full-time jobs to help out at home is a reason often given for leaving.

"We need something we can use as leverage to keep these kids in school and thinking more about college," said Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Duncan Pat Pritchett.

National research shows that dropouts have fewer career options, are typically stuck in low-paying jobs and have limited opportunities to go to college.

And according to the P-16 Plan, student dropouts can cost taxpayers as much as $500,000 in public assistance, health care and incarceration costs over 30 years. By contrast, a high school diploma can add nearly $500,000 in earning potential during a worker's career, the proposal says.

"The equation has changed. Every single child who has a better education has more earning power and a better lifestyle," said Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the Senate Education and Career Development Committee.

"If we don't give them the tools, we're kind of dooming them to be less than successful," Kenley said.

Another tool that could help is the change in how the state calculates the number of students earning diplomas.

For years, school districts were required to report only students who formally withdrew from high school as dropouts. Those who stopped showing up for classes with no explanation weren't included.

The calculation -- called a survival rate -- also took the number of high school dropouts per grade level over four years and multiplied them to come up with an overall percentage.

Education officials acknowledge the method was flawed and produced an inflated graduation rate.

Preliminary data kept by the Indiana Department of Education for 2001-02 list the graduation rate as 91 percent. But a recent study by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank, puts the state's rate at 74 percent, among the lowest in the Midwest.

The new calculation, which started with the freshman class of 2002, tracks students annually starting in ninth grade and over four years, with adjustments made for those who withdraw for nonacademic reasons. By 2006, when that class graduates, state officials hope to have their first accurate count of dropouts.

Educators think both the changes in dropout age and how the state calculates the number of graduates are good in light of state and federal mandates for school improvement and accountability.

"The graduation rate is one of the things we're going to be judged by. . . . This gives us a benchmark formula to work from," said Franklin Central High School Principal Kevin Koers. 


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