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Experts: Graduation Rates Low, Falling in the South

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Experts warned Southern education leaders meeting here that falling graduation rates may threaten the region's progress in improving students' test scores, access to preschool, and other advances in recent years in the poorest region of the United States.

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"Our achievement's going up, but our graduation rate is going down in many places," Gene Bottoms, the senior vice president of the Southern Regional Education Board, said here at the group's annual conference as he released a report on the South's low graduation rates. A portion of the region’s campuses "in some ways look very much like third-world-country high schools," Mr. Bottoms said.

State lawmakers, education chiefs, and others heard the stern warnings here June 27 at the SREB's annual meeting and legislative work conference June 25-28. The SREB is an Atlanta-based compact of 16 states that provides state officials with nonpartisan guidance on education policies.

Most alarming to participants here wasn't that graduation rates remain low in many Southern states. Instead, some state policymakers were disappointed to learn that graduation rates in many states have dropped substantially in the past decade.

Graduation rates dropped by an average of 5 percentage points in the SREB states from 1992 to 2002, while the overall national graduation rate dropped 2 percentage points to about 70 percent, according to federal data compiled by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and included in the SREB report. Rates plummeted in some SREB states during the same decade: Tennessee's fell 13 points, Georgia's and Alabama's dropped by 10 points, while South Carolina and Delaware each saw eight-point declines. All but three of the 16 SREB states saw graduation rates drop between 1992 and 2002.

Graduation rates increased by 4 percentage points in Louisiana, 3 points in Texas, and by 1 point in Oklahoma.

Louisiana state Rep. Francis Thompson, a Democrat, said his state now requires all students under 17 to attend high school or face arrest. The law may be helping curb dropouts in the state, he said, but added that the problem deserves more attention. "We’ve made some significant difference in Louisiana."

Drops in the region’s graduation rates were especially startling because several SREB states already had some of the nation’s lowest graduation rates. The Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based conservative research center, showed that only 65 percent of students in the SREB states graduated on time in 2001, ranging from a high of 79 percent in Oklahoma to a low of 53 percent in South Carolina. Rates were even lower for minority students, especially for males. "There’s no good news here," said Joan Lord, the SREB’s director of educational policies.

Despite differences in how graduation and high school dropout rates are reported by each state, the federal government, and by leading researchers, SREB experts told state leaders at the conference here to attack a problem that they suggested has been downplayed while states focused on increasing academic rigor and measuring students’ progress through testing.

"The first step is recognizing what the problem is," said state Sen. Hob Bryan, a Democrat from Mississippi. Only about 60 percent of students in his state graduate on time—and the state’s rate fell 4 points between 1992 and 2002. "The dropout rate is a very, very real problem," he said. "You’ve got to have more rigorous standards and you’ve got to lower the dropout rate at the same time, and one without the other is unacceptable."

Mr. Bottoms and Ms. Lord recommended a list of possible state policies that might help states address the problems. Their report suggests that state leaders set ambitious graduation-rate targets for all groups of students, make those goals a key part of state accountability laws, focus more attention and resources on improving the 9th grade transition year, and change the ways high schools operate to engage more students in learning.

Despite the alarming tone of the report, several SREB states have bested the national average for graduation rates, according to state, federal, and independent sources of graduation data. Arkansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, Virginia, and West Virginia all exceeded the national average of graduation rates in 2001.

South Carolina state Rep. Ronald P. Townsend, a Republican and the chairman of his state’s House education committee, said schools alone will not be able to improve the graduation rates. "It's business, community, families, who all have to pull together and realize it’s a partnership with the school," he said. If states can help more students finish school and enter college or the workplace better prepared, more people in the South will be able "to enjoy their life’s dream," he said.

In other news from the conference, longtime SREB President Mark Musick said his farewells before retiring next month. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat and the current chairman of the SREB, joined Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, and other speakers at a banquet here in Mr. Musick’s honor. He will be replaced in August by former SREB Vice President David S. Spence, now the vice chancellor of the California State University system.

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