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Bridges4Kids LogoHow North Carolina Creates More Dropouts
by Debbie Cenziper and Ted Mellnik, Charlotte Observer, December 17, 2001
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North Carolina's nationally praised push to raise standards in public schools has a dangerous downside that state leaders have widely ignored: a dramatic rise in dropouts. After holding steady for years, the percentage of students quitting N.C. high schools in 1999 surged to the highest rate in at least a decade, and remained high a year later.

The jump came on the heels of a massive and widely watched effort to strengthen public schools through a series of new academic challenges, most notably high-stakes year-end tests and a tougher competency exam required for high school graduation.

Teachers and administrators statewide earned cash bonuses for their students' success, and faced penalties for their failure. Educators say raising standards was an important step that has already produced results, such as more rigorous coursework and higher test scores, particularly for minorities. But it's come at a cost.

Lost in the early whirlwind of school reform were struggling teen-agers ill-prepared to meet the new requirements. Other students say they were pushed out by schools that couldn't support them or no longer wanted them there. Now in crowded community college programs, in low-wage jobs, on the streets or even in prison, they are the first casualties of a state agenda that's focused largely on tests, but little on their consequences.

"It wasn't as if policy-makers didn't understand the risks," said Greg Malhoit, former executive director of the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center, which advocates for minorities and the poor. "Some of the architects of the program freely admitted that it would result in a higher dropout rate, and there was not any discussion of a plan to educate the students who could be forced out of the system."

In 1999, the year the testing and accountability program kicked in fully, the number of high school dropouts jumped 32 percent statewide, to 24,637 students, even though enrollment grew by just 2 percent.

The dropout rate, already among the worst in the nation, spiked from 5.3 percent to 6.8 percent. State officials discounted the jump as a change in the way the state counts dropouts, but an Observer analysis found that explanation accounts for only about a quarter of the increase. The additional 4,500 dropouts in that year alone -- enough to fill five high schools -- represent part of the unheralded costs of raising standards before students were prepared to meet them.

Those costs also include an additional 4,400 students who completed high school in 1999 but didn't pass the tougher competency exam. Though those students did not receive a diploma unless they returned and passed the test, the state didn't count them as dropouts.

N.C. leaders raised standards despite warnings that schools largely did not have the tutoring and counseling programs for thousands of students, disproportionately minority, who had little chance of conquering new challenges before the end of their senior year. The state Department of Public Instruction had even dismantled its dropout-prevention program during a series of budget cuts.

In recent years, North Carolina has been hailed as a leader in school reform. Yet the state has the nation's second-highest percentage of dropouts among teens 16 to 19, the 2000 Census shows.

State Superintendent Mike Ward said the rise in dropouts is a top concern. He in part blames local school systems, who he says in recent years were charged with fighting the problem. Now, he said, the Department of Public Instruction must take more control.

"The passage of standards, I don't think, has been the issue. It's providing resources and support to help youngsters rise to those standards," Ward said. "...There's no arguing the numbers. I don't think we're getting the job done in terms of keeping kids in school."

Though more than 20 states have adopted what educators call high-stakes testing programs, there's little research on the effects on the dropout rate. But many N.C. teachers, counselors, superintendents and children's advocates, as well as nationally cited educators and economists, say tougher requirements drive students out of school.

A four-month Observer investigation found:

The percentage of students dropping out because of academic problems in some systems doubled or even tripled in 1999. Dropouts cite such things as repeated failure on tests, fear of senior exit projects, or concern they won't earn enough credits to graduate.
Enrollment in N.C. alternative programs, which offer instruction to students outside regular classrooms, has soared. Though many alternative programs were designed for disruptive or troubled students, classrooms are now crowded with teens who can't keep pace in regular schools. Alternative schools have the highest dropout rates in the state.
Parents, teachers and some education officials fear schools are pushing out some low performers. Dropouts across the state say administrators encouraged them to leave or paid little attention when they stopped coming to class. The number of 16- and 17-year-olds served by community college programs, which offer alternatives such as the General Educational Development diploma, grew by 35 percent between 1995 and 2000, far outpacing enrollment and population growth.
Despite concerns, the state largely doesn't penalize schools for escalating dropout rates. Bonuses and recognition have been given to schools with some of the highest dropout rates in the state.
By many measures, N.C. schools are stronger than ever.

North Carolina leads the nation in the number of teachers who have earned national certification, the most accepted symbol of teaching excellence in the United States. In grades three through eight, almost three in four students passed the end-of-grade reading and math tests last school year, compared with about half in 1992-93. Test-score gains have been praised by newspapers, educators and business groups.

At the same time, however, North Carolina's high school graduation rate has declined every year since 1993. In 1999, the most recent year available, the rate was 60 percent, the lowest level since at least 1981.

The N.C. graduation rate, as in other states, looks worse than the dropout rate. That's because there are many ways to calculate school completion. By most any measure, however, North Carolina posts a higher percentage of dropouts than most states.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, educators were so concerned about the rate increase they hired dropout-prevention counselors.

"I'm incredibly in favor of high standards ... but we anticipated that there would be casualties," said Superintendent Eric Smith. "The students who are first a part of that change are the ones who are going to feel the impact."

State Superintendent Ward said the education department is working to keep more kids in school through such things as creating smoother transitions for ninth-graders.

But for thousands of dropouts, the push comes too late.

Richard Daniels quit high school in 1999 in Stokes County, north of Winston-Salem, because he was failing state tests, including the competency exam.

Eighteen months later, he tried to re-enroll but a guidance counselor told him he should enroll at community college, which offers the GED or an adult high school diploma. Daniels left, and the school, which shared a dropout-prevention counselor with five other schools, never followed up to see whether he had enrolled elsewhere. He hadn't.

"It was like they were just passing me off somewhere else," Daniels said.

Bonnie Hall, with Stokes County Schools, said Daniels would have been a 17-year-old freshman in high school. He also tried to re-enroll after the school year began.

Daniels said he lost hope after he was turned away. Less than a year later, he and some friends took a shotgun and baseball bat and robbed a home of $1,800.

Daniels was convicted of robbery with a dangerous weapon, and is serving up to 69 months at Morganton's Western Youth Institution. It was the first time he had been charged with a crime.

More than half of North Carolina's 32,230 prison inmates have no high school diploma.

"There are some kids who just slip through the cracks," Hall said. "It's not something that any school system would be proud of, but there are just some things that are beyond our control."

Dropouts no longer priority

They are the kids who linger on street corners in the middle of the school day, kicking dirt around and watching cars drive by. They are part of the crowd outside convenience stores, or packed into borrowed cars, roaming the neighborhood, waiting for something to happen.Adults are at work, friends are at school. Dropouts teeter somewhere in between.

"I wish I would have had a diploma to hang up on the wall," said J.D. Lee, 20, a dropout in Halifax County, northeast of Raleigh. "I regret that now."

One afternoon in early fall, Lee stood outside a grocery with six buddies who call themselves "hood dogs" because they live in one of the county's poorest neighborhoods. Most have quit school. They say they don't want to end up like some men in this neighborhood of boarded up homes, who are sitting nearby bumming change to buy wine.

"A lot of what happened is my fault," Lee said. "But in school, they weren't supportive at all."

In 2000, almost 23,700 students dropped out of N.C. high schools. The fallout is immense: High school dropouts are more likely to live in poverty, end up in prison and draw welfare. N.C. experts say a diploma is more important than ever because major employers, such as textile mills, seek workers with at least a high school education.

Most students who drop out do so in the ninth grade. Dropouts either sign forms announcing their intention to leave or simply don't show up. The law says students must be 16 before quitting.

Keeping kids in school was a top priority in the late 1980s, but new concerns cropped up a few years later. Lawmakers had lost confidence in the Department of Public Instruction. Companies moving to North Carolina demanded stronger schools.

Jay Robinson, late chairman of the state school board and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent, talked of a "last chance" plan to empower school systems and hold them accountable for their students.

In 1995, the General Assembly passed legislation authorizing the state to restructure schools. The result: an accountability plan that set performance standards, with a system of rewards and penalties. In 1996, the state introduced year-end tests in grades three through eight; high schools were included a year later. In 1998-99, the two testing programs were combined into what has become known as the ABCs of Public Education.

The state school board also toughened the high school competency test, which measures reading and math skills. And school districts raised their own graduation standards. Some, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, created senior projects; dozens required more credits for graduation with additional math, English and social studies courses.

Until then, too many children had been passed from grade to grade without ever learning basic skills, said John Dornan, executive director of the N.C. Public School Forum, a nonprofit public policy research center in Raleigh.

But Dornan questions why few officials have talked about the risks, such as losing students.

"It was very easy to like the sounds of higher standards and more rigorous graduation requirements," he said. "But I don't think most people went into it with their eyes open."

State Board of Education Chairman Phil Kirk counters that raising standards could not wait.

"The dropout situation in North Carolina is horrendous ... But you face the problem of dropouts versus the high school diploma that doesn't mean anything," he said.

Giving up, dropping out

When North Carolina's dropout rate jumped sharply in 1999, the Department of Public Instruction attributed the increase largely to a change in the way the state counts dropouts.

Included for the first time that year were hundreds of students who left high school early for community colleges, which offer programs such as the GED.

But even without counting those students, or teen-agers who dropped out after they were suspended, expelled or jailed, The Observer found the number of students quitting school still grew by 25 percent, from 17,414 in 1998 to 21,760 in 1999.

"We didn't do the hard numbers on it," said Don Farthing, a dropout-prevention specialist who retired from the department in October. "It's entirely reasonable to think that there were other factors involved."

When all dropouts are included, the number of students quitting N.C. schools increased by 32 percent in 1999, to a rate of 6.8 percent. Rates nationwide, meanwhile, held steady.

Jackie Colbert joined the Department of Public Instruction in 1987 as a dropout-prevention consultant, and said that while she supports raised standards, it's clear they were a factor in the growing dropout rate.

"I can't deny it," said Colbert, now assistant director of school improvement. "... In some cases, schools may have been unprepared for the impact."

Other factors could have influenced North Carolina's dropout rate, such as a robust economy that offered low-level jobs for higher wages. The process of dropping out takes place over time, often among children without involved parents, in schools that fail to engage them.

How much testing and tougher standards affect students has been heavily debated.

Some authors of the ABCs plan had hoped by strengthening schools, fewer students would drop out. That hasn't happened yet. In 2000, the year after the spike, the rate dropped slightly but was still higher than in eight of the past nine years.

Data for 2001 is scheduled for release early next year, and educators say they don't know what those results will show.

A growing group of experts, meanwhile, points to a connection between higher standards and dropout rates. One study by economists at Cornell University and the University of Michigan found increasing the number of courses for graduation raises the dropout rate by as much as 7 percent.

No analysis has been done in North Carolina and the long-term impact is still unclear. But educators say they have long worried the force of higher standards could convince students already on edge to flee.

"It's kind of like sacrificing this generation for the next generation, and that certainly doesn't seem fair to this generation," said Aaron Pallas, a professor and nationally cited researcher at Columbia's Teachers College.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, with a dropout rate higher than the state average, the number of dropouts jumped 9 percent in 1999. It dropped the next year systemwide, but remained high for some high schools.

"I told my staff five years ago that there's a train wreck that's going to happen if we don't give these kids support," said Ron Thompson, principal of East Mecklenburg High, where teachers gave up much of their planning time to assist students.

Across the state, many students simply gave up when faced with tougher standards. To some, the fear of failure was overwhelming.

Gerell Owens spent much of his sophomore year at East Mecklenburg High in 2000 worried about tests.

He struggled in class and had not yet passed the tougher competency exam. Finally, he quit. He spent a year unloading trucks for $8.50 an hour. Now, he's trying to earn an adult high school diploma at Central Piedmont Community College.

"I was worried about the tests. I thought that was going to be another reason why I wasn't going to graduate," he said.

Teachers say the focus on testing restricts their ability to reach students no longer mentally engaged in school. They talk of the pressure to cover the state curriculum with little time to break down information for students.

As a member of the state school board from 1993 until April, Eddie Davis supported testing because he wanted schools to pay more attention to failing students. But he fears the pressure leaves many teachers feeling helpless.

"The testing program seems to have become a monster in and of itself," said Davis of Durham, now vice president of the N.C. Association of Educators.

Irv Besecker, who teaches at West Forsyth High in Winston-Salem, said high-stakes testing forces teachers to teach a "canned curriculum." He was teaching the Declaration of Independence earlier this year when students started asking questions. Do we obey the law because we may get caught?

Teachers must make lessons relevant to students, but they often have no time, Besecker said.

"You're thinking you've got to ... get through this lesson because tomorrow, you have to do the Articles of Confederation," said Besecker. "If you don't cover everything, you're going to see your scores suffer."

Pushing out low performers

Students aren't the only ones who fear failure.Principals can be demoted if test scores are low. Teachers can lose their jobs. Money is at stake: This year, the state gave out more than $75 million in bonuses. Teachers in schools that exceed goals get $1,500; assistants receive $500. Staff in schools that make adequate progress receive smaller amounts.

Dozens of parents and educators fear those pressures drive schools to push out students.

The evidence is largely anecdotal, and many educators are reluctant to talk about the issue. Several teachers said school staffers analyze test scores and decide which students' improvement can help raise the school's scores most.

"It's more playing games with numbers than it is human beings," Besecker said.

Encouraging students to leave school can be a subtle process that's hard to prove, but superintendents and other officials worry it's happening.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Superintendent Smith said, "I think that's potentially a major problem as with all the other fallouts that goes with raising standards."

In Roanoke Rapids, a system in Halifax County, Superintendent John Parker said, "It exists, sure. I've seen it and I've experienced it ... It's very frustrating, but yet I understand where the teachers are coming from. It's a bottom-line sort of mentality."

In Kannapolis at A.L. Brown High, Assistant Principal Vickie Wilhelm said, "Because of the emphasis on getting your test scores up, I think a lot of high schools push these kids out intentionally. Do you want to sacrifice your dropout rate or do you want to sacrifice your test scores?"

Kirk, state school board chair, said this fall he's also feared schools could push out students. "Within the last six or eight months, I've had that concern."

Stories among dropouts are strikingly similar. Many say administrators urged them to leave, suggesting they had failed too many grades and were older than most of their classmates, with little chance of graduating. Others say they left and never heard from schools again.

Among those dealing with the fallout: N.C. community colleges, whose classrooms are packed with teen-age dropouts.

Community colleges offer the GED test, for people with high school skills but no diploma, and a high school program for adults.

At CPCC, enrollment of students under 18 has more than doubled in the past three years, a trend that's worried officials.

The school system wants students to earn a high school diploma, not a GED, which generally has less value for education and employment purposes. Community college officials say their programs were designed for adults, and teen-agers can be disruptive and unfocused.

"A lot of our teachers felt the school system was just getting rid of their problem kids by sending them over here," said Bobby Sutton, division director of CPCC community development. "I think Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said, "We're not going to do that.' They saw it, too."

Michael Chestnut enrolled in community college in Wilson County, east of Raleigh, after he dropped out of high school at 19. He hadn't yet passed the competency test, and said teachers told him he likely wouldn't have enough credits to graduate.

Chestnut had hoped to attend college. Now, he works at one, busing dishes at Barton College in Wilson.

"I wanted a diploma, but the way they were talking to me at school, it was like I couldn't get it," said Chestnut, a basketball player and former middle school honor roll student. "It made me feel ... like nobody cared."

June Sessoms, Chestnut's former counselor, said teachers suggest community college because there are few options.

"Teachers are human," Sessoms said. "You work so hard. You try to pull from every angle to help them ... But I think sometimes they give up, too."

N.C. alternative programs have also faced enrollment increases -- the number of students in alternative programs rose about 31 percent between 1996 and 2000. And many more students have been sent to alternative programs for academic problems, not bad behavior, prompting the Department of Public Instruction to take notice.

"One possibility is schools are really concerned so they referred kids. Or they might be referring them because they want to dump them before they get into their accountability model," said Carolyn Cobb, the department's evaluation chief who now works in the Governor's Office.

In a March 2000 state report, one unnamed N.C. superintendent said: "I might be willing to sacrifice (the accountability results of) one alternative school in order to make all my other schools look good."

Educators counter that some students drop out no matter what schools offer. Some dropouts misbehave; others don't want to do the work.

"I don't believe that our (educators) are trying to force children to leave school, but I know that they have high expectations," said Larry Price, Wilson superintendent.

`Something has to give'

Guidance counselor Larry Carpenter says lack of resources, not lack of caring, limits what many schools can offer.

He's recommended community college to students at Ashbrook High in Gastonia because there's little time to find alternatives. He estimates he spends 85 percent of his time coordinating the testing program.

"There are times when I go home and say, `What could I have done differently to save this child?' " he said. "... But something has to give."

Teachers, too, say they can't save every child, not when so many show up unable to read, unable to concentrate, sometimes even unable to stay awake.

Teachers say they need more help from the state, citing the lack of options for students.

State officials counter they're spending more than $45 million this year to help low performers, plus millions for at-risk students. And the state school board, they say, has taken steps to reduce dropouts by adding dropout rates into the formula that determines whether schools receive state bonuses. Last year was the first year the rate was included.

The dropout rate, though, counts far less than all other factors in the formula, such as test scores. Last year, some high schools with the highest dropout rates in the state, such as West Mecklenburg and Lincolnton High, received state bonuses.

The dropout rate isn't included at all in the formula that determines how alternative schools fare. That means a principal can transfer a failing student to an alternative school, and if the student drops out, neither school is held accountable.

Without more attention, educators fear North Carolina's dropout rate will grow.

The state is planning a tougher exit exam that will replace the competency test starting with the Class of 2005. And a new retention policy lets schools hold back students in grades three, five and eight if they don't pass the state's exams. Research has shown the strongest predictor of whether students will drop out is if they've been held back.

Last year, about 2,000 fifth-graders were retained for doing poorly on state tests.

"All we're doing is stacking the cards against these kids instead of giving them the resources and the tools to be successful," said Daniella Cook with the N.C. Common Sense Foundation, a nonpartisan policy group in Raleigh. "We're giving them a reason to leave school."


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