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27 States Agree To Test New Dropout Definition

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Washington--Seeking to end uncertainties about the extent of the nation's dropout problem, 27 states, 3 territories, and the District of Columbia have agreed to test a uniform definition of school dropouts, a federal education official said last week.

The new definition is the product of several years of negotiations between state and federal officials.

It eventually could become a permanent part of federal efforts to collect and publish education data, according to Lee Hoffman, who oversees the project for the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

The pilot program addresses several obstacles that have plagued efforts by researchers and policymakers to assess the severity of the dropout situation.

Under the new definition, a dropout is a student who:

Was enrolled in school during the previous school year but was not enrolled at the beginning of the current year;

Has not graduated from high school or completed a state- or district-approved program, and

Has not transferred to another public-school district, private school, or state- or district-approved education program; been suspended, expelled, or excused from school due to illness; or died.

A standard definition would, for the first time, enable state officials to compare their dropout rates with other states, noted Ramsay Selden, who participated in development of the new definition as director of the state education assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Current state and school-district data on dropouts are based on widely varying definitions and thus have not been comparable among jurisdictions, he explained.

The new criteria also attempt to address concerns about the accuracy of current data by excluding students who frequently have been counted as dropouts in the past but have not, as the term implies, voluntarily ceased pursuing a high-school degree or its equivalent.

Such students include those who die before they graduate, transfer to another school district or recognized education program, or are temporarily unable to attend school for disciplinary or medical reasons.

The pilot program will be accompanied by a campaign to encourage secondary-school principals routinely to request transcripts for incoming transfer students. When such requests are not filed, as often happens, the student's previous school usually has no way of knowing if he or she has dropped out of the educational system.

"The migration of students from district to district and state to state is really the biggest impediment to accurately counting kids who drop out," said Mr. Selden.

The negotiated definition also represents a recognition that a significant number of young people may be giving up on school before 9th grade, but have not been counted as dropouts because most formulas currently in use measure only the high-school rate.

A few school districts that have examined their dropout problems, inel10lcluding Los Angeles and Washington, have discovered that more students are leaving school in the 7th grade than in almost any other grade.

Students will be tracked from the 7th to 12th grades in the pilot program, and will not be counted as dropouts if they continue to enroll in school after the 12th grade to complete work needed for their degree.

The states participating in the test have agreed to collect data from a selected sample of school districts for one year and forward the figures to the nces, which will attempt to verify their accuracy and utility, Mr. Hoffman said.

The new dropout-rate assessment complements other efforts by state and federal officials to collect comparable state-by-state data on student attendance and achievement, Mr. Selden said.

Ultimately, he argued, all children should be tracked from the time they become eligible for pre-kindergarten programs through graduation, by means of a "national student registry" run by a professional group unconnected with the federal government.

"I personally believe it's impossible and inappropriate for the federal government to do that," he said.

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