North Carolina Creates More Dropouts
by Debbie Cenziper and Ted Mellnik, Charlotte Observer,
December 17, 2001
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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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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,"
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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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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