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Higher Standards Linked to Dropout Increase

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The Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will meet later this month to consider formal adoption of the new graduation standards it tentatively approved in late January. The standards mirror those proposed by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Last week, however, Louisiana's governor, Edwin W. Edwards, proposed his own 60-point school-reform plan, which urges state education leaders to consider, among other things, that higher graduation standards may force many students to drop out of school. The cautionary note, said an aide,6stems from the Governor's concern that "dropping the hammer immediately" might exacerbate the academic problems of marginal students.

The Governor's plan includes recommendations that "advanced courses should be phased in over a period of time" but that "an appropriate alternative curriculum for students who are not college-bound should be developed by improving vocational-education options at the high-school level," said Mona Davis, the Governor's education advisor.

"We are concerned that the graduation requirements set an unrealistic level for now. It's not that we are not in favor of higher standards. We think that kids can do more. But there may be some problems in dropping the hammer immediately," said Ms. Davis.

A Looming Problem

Louisiana is not alone in pondering the varied impacts that "dropping the hammer" could have on students. As states move to require more rigorous curricula, a growing number of educators are suggesting that the attrition rate in high schools nationwide, which rose by 19 percent over the past decade, will surely rise further in the wake of the academic reforms.

But there is as yet little agreement on the degree of attention that should be focused on that eventuality, or on the level or types of investment that might be required to shore up the weakest students in the excellence movement. While leaders in some states are working out programs to attack the problem, some educators say that higher attrition rates are the necessary price of raising the value of the high-school diploma; others argue that piecemeal efforts to modify the academic demands on marginal students will not resolve their difficulties with schooling.

Rising Attrition Rate

In 1973, the high-school attrition rate was 22.8 percent; it rose to 27.1 percent last year, according to statistics from the U.S. Education Department's scorecard on the states, released by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in January. (See Education Week, Jan. 18, 1984.)

(Those statistics, however, include all students who do not graduate with their class, such as students who take equivalency examinations to earn their diplomas, enroll in special classes and graduate soon after their classmates, or graduate early, according to a department official.)

Approximately 25 percent of young adults leave school without a diploma, and in many urban areas the dropout rate is much higher, according to Gary G. Wehlage, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has studied the problems of so-called "marginal students"--those who typically are poor academic performers, frequently absent, and often in conflict with the norms and expectations of the schools.

Mr. Wehlage said the school-reform initiatives, many of which will cut down the electives popular with marginal students and require more study in core academic subjects, are likely only to increase the dissatisfaction of those students already having problems in school.

'Negative Feedback'

As of last fall, more stringent graduation requirements were established in 26 states by boards of education, legislatures, and state superintendents. Twenty-four states were considering recommendations to increase graduation requirements, according to an Education Week survey on states' reform efforts. (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1983.)

According to Mr. Wehlage, many students do not graduate because the ''negative feedback" they receive from school contributes to "a sense of failure and negative self-image." Such students also feel, he said, that there is not enough attention and support provided for their particular academic problems.

The higher standards will only bring "more negative feedback" and most likely "encourage teachers to devote even more attention to college-bound students, who will need more help themselves to meet the requirements," according to Mr. Wehlage.

Moreover, because marginal students tend to have more trouble with teachers who are "subject-matter specialists" than with those "broadly trained in educating the whole child," the call for teachers who are trained in academic disciplines rather than pedagogy is a cause for concern, the researcher noted. Marginal students, he said, "need a lot of caring" in school to make up for what they often do not receive at home.

Marginal students enrolled in vocational programs could face even greater difficulties, Mr. Wehlage said. Those students, he explained, will "be prevented from participating in so-called 'capstone experiences'--the best experiential programs that spur their interest in school--because they have not adequately fulfilled prerequisite requirements.''

State Programs Necessary

"If you set up more rigorous requirements for graduation, inevitably you will increase the number of dropouts," said Arnold Webb, assistant commissioner for education programs in the New Jersey Department of Education. "It is incumbent upon those of us who are raising standards to make sure we provide some kind of alternative way for dropouts to earn a high-school diploma."

States must also develop "a support structure in public schools, particularly in schools in urban areas with high minority populations, to help kids meet the rigorous standards," he said. The expected increase in the dropout rate that will come with the new standards "is a difficult price to pay, but we have to pay it."

"What the hell are we doing if we send kids out with diplomas and say they're high-school graduates unable to cope in workplace or as citizens?" Mr. Webb added. "It's our responsibility to hold all students to the same standards and our duty to take all the flak and fallout that will come in response to the more rigorous standards."

Gov. Thomas H. Kean last month announced that New Jersey will launch an ambitious urban-school initiative, designed in part, he said, to help marginal students meet new state graduation standards.

The program will provide additional support for students and adult learners who wish to graduate and for teachers charged with directing slow learners and problem students through the state's new reading, writing, and mathematics tests. (See Education Week, March 7, 1984.)

Idaho has also established a support program to help many of its students meet the state's new graduation requirements. The Idaho Department of Education is providing $2,500 to each of 10 districts to help regular classroom special-education teachers mold a modified curriculum for learning-disabled students so that they can meet the new requirements, according to Robert C. West, director of special education for the state's Moscow School District.

According to Mr. West, as many as 10 percent of the district's 600 high-school students will have difficulty meeting the state's new, more stringent requirements, which will be instituted with the graduating class of 1988.

"Many Idaho students are in jeopardy of receiving education that is more properly aimed at the college-bound," Mr. West said.

"The increase of college-preparatory courses drastically reduces the number of hours available for more appropriate--and more popular--vocational and career-education courses, some of which are the reason many of the students come to school."

Florida Legislation

"We were aware of the problem of increased dropouts," said Edward L. Cisek, education adviser to the president of the Florida State Senate, which last year approved graduation standards that are among the most stringent in the nation. "But one of the significant points that was made was that many dropouts left because they were bored from taking too many cafeteria-style courses that had no relationship to the total academic program."

The new standards, the legislative aide argued, will give the curriculum a more definite shape and add to the education program meaning that was lacking in the past.

Mr. Cisek denied that the new requirements, which begin with the graduating class of 1985 and will be further increased in 1987, will make impossible demands on students.

"Just because we require three years of mathematics does not mean that we require all students to take college-level mathematics or that everyone take the same courses," he said. "Some students might take business math or courses designed to provide simple computational skills that can help students function as productive members of the workforce."

No Action Taken

Nonetheless, Mr. Cisek agreed that in the move to raise educational standards, lawmakers and educators took no action to forestall the dropout problem that might result. But this year, he said, as the date of implementation approaches, there is more support for efforts to reach out to help students at risk of failing or leaving school.

For example, Senate bill 923, which is sponsored by Senate President Curtis Peterson and Jack Gordon, chairman of the Senate education committee, would require that "all students have an approved program of study related to academic objectives and that counselors see to it that any course students take relates to that program," Mr. Cisek said. The bill calls on high-school teachers to act as academic advisors to students and to work in tandem with guidance counselors.

Each teacher would be assigned about 30 students and be allowed the equivalent of one class period a day to be free from instructional duties and provide support services, with priority given to low-achieving and economically disadvantaged students, according to Mr. Cisek.

The bill, called the reach bill ("Raising Educational Achievement Continuously Higher"), also provides that school representatives actively recruit dropouts to return to school in some fashion. "What we have are many dropouts who leave school and in a few months have no job and nothing to do," Mr. Cisek explained. "We would encourage them to go back to an appropriate adult-education or vocational-education program and get the skills they will need to be successful. We don't do this very often, but it is so much cheaper to recruit students back to school than have a person become unemployed, go on welfare, or commit crimes."

Under the bill, additional funds would be provided for the state's dropout-reduction program, which identifies and counsels potential dropouts. The bill also seeks start-up funds of about $2 million for pilot programs that develop alternative ways of dealing with marginal students.

Another part of the bill that was funded last year provides financial support for colleges and universities to provide counseling and support services to blacks and disadvantaged students. Under the so-called "College Reach Out" program, the state's higher-education institutions bring students into the campus environment and provide information on admission requirements and financial aid.

Testing Programs

A program at Florida State University that brings junior- and senior-high-school students from Indian schools to the university for a few weeks every summer has been successful in increasing the graduation and college-attendance rates of Native Americans, Mr. Cisek said.

Some legislators say that state-mandated testing programs, when used for diagnostic purposes, will be helpful in identifying students who are in trouble academically.

According to Edward F. Burns, the ranking Republican member of the House Education Committee in Pennsylvania, "the state does run the risk of having more dropouts" now that the state board has moved to "substantially upgrade" high-school requirements.

He said the education committee has "tried to counter that a little bit by introducing legislation requiring testing in grades 3, 5, 8, and 11. The tests would be designed not only to show which students are not doing too well, but to guide the development of remedial-education programs."

(The Pennsylvania state board approved the testing program in January, removing the requirement for 11th-grade exit tests, Mr. Burns said.)

'Remedial Education is the Key'

"It's a shame to have youngsters passed on from grade level to grade level and passed out the front door of the high school who are no better than when they came in," the legislator added. "Remedial education is the key to getting those off the track back on."

But those who advocate alternative education programs for marginal students disagree. They note that while higher academic standards may push at-risk students over the line and out of school, academic problems are not the main reason the students are at risk in the first place.

Thus, they say, testing programs and requiring remedial study in the regular classroom are likely to make things worse for such students rather than better.

"Marginal students don't need academic counseling or remedial training as much as they need help with their social development," said Mr. Wehlage of the University of Wisconsin. "These students need to make fundamental changes in the way they see themselves and the social world."

A report written by Mr. Wehlage and Calvin R. Stone that was published by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research last winter argued that marginal students need to re-establish bonds with groups of people and learn principles of self-management and social interaction that will allow them to succeed in work and their personal lives.

Programs that deal successfully with problem pupils and slow learners do so because "they treat the whole child, not just the academic problem," contends Russell W. Rumberger, a professor at the Stanford University School of Education who has conducted a number of studies on dropouts.

Treatment has to be "more than educational," he adds; it must "include the psychological."

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