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Calling for "real and meaningful sanctions" to curb high absenteeism and dropout rates, the superintendent of the St. Paul public schools has asked for a new state law that would deny drivers' licenses to students under age 18 who have unsatisfactory attendance records as defined by their schools.

Superintendent David A. Bennett, as part of a three-year "Strategies for Excellence and Equity" plan, also asked for legal authority to assess fines against the parents of children who have unsatisfactory attendance records.

Mr. Bennett's plan called for establishing minimum competencies for high-school graduation, beginning with the class of 1989, in reading comprehension, mathematics, language "mechanics," reference4skills, writing, listening, speaking, and reasoning.

It is a "disservice" to both students and parents, Mr. Bennett said, to let pupils leave school without the skills to survive in the modern world.

He also recommended the establishment of "competency criteria" in reading, mathematics, and "oral or written expression" beginning in the 2nd grade, in order to provide "an alarm system" that would trigger responses--such as remedial help and close monitoring of homework--to raise students' skills to an "acceptable level."

Four hearings are scheduled this month to solicit comments about the plan from parents, teachers, and school-board members.

The Houston Independent School District's dropout rate would be two to three times higher than reported if estimates of the number of students who drop out between aca8demic years were included in the calculations, a district report has found.

Officials have calculated the dropout rate in the 195,000-student system at between 5 percent and 6 percent per year since 1978, according to Rosalind Young, a district spokesman.

But the district's annual performance report, released last month, notes that "actual dropout rates are far higher than customary modes of calculating them indicate."

During the 1984-85 school year, the report noted, 4 percent of the district's K-12 students dropped out between September and May. But that figure soars to 10.5 percent when those students who are thought to drop out over the summer are included.

Officials estimate that one-third of the 28,800 students who did not return to district schools in the fall of 1984 dropped out; the other two-thirds are thought to have moved or enrolled in other schools, according to Ms. Young.

This is the first year in which district officials were required by the state to include dropout statistics in the report.

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