Student Well-Being

‘No Pass, No Drive’ Laws: Popular But Not Proven

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 25, 2011 7 min read
High school senior Clynt Goins watches a documentary in his English class at McMinn County High School. He took and passed two summer school classes in order to get his suspended driver's license back.

Over the past two decades or so, a majority of states have implemented policies that link teenagers’ driver’s licenses to school attendance, academic performance, or behavior, but those requirements aren’t backed by solid research evidence.

Experts trace the start of the trend to 1988, when West Virginia enacted a law linking driving privileges for teenagers under 18 to school attendance. It has evolved in recent years so that some states now include good academic standing as a criterion for getting or keeping a license as well, according to Kathy Christie, the chief of staff for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, which tracks such policies. Twenty-seven states now have what Ms. Christie informally calls “no-pass, no-drive” sanctions aimed at encouraging students to stay in school, behave well, and study.

“It’s looking at teenagers and asking, ‘What makes them tick? What would help them keep their nose to the grindstone and show up in school?’ ” she said.

Some school counselors favor the common-sense approach, but researchers are skeptical, given that little more than anecdotal evidence is available on the issue.

Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, puts the no-pass, no-drive policies in the category of punishments for teenagers. He is not convinced they are a good idea.

“Getting their bodies into the building doesn’t mean they are going to learn anything,” said Mr. Rumberger, who is also the director of the California Dropout Research Project, which informs policymakers about the dropout crisis in that state. “It’s much better in my view to be putting resources and energy into making schools better places for kids.”

Limited Evidence

Yael Kidron, a senior research analyst for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and a research team leader for that organization’s National High School Center, also doubts the policies are effective in motivating teenagers to be more attentive to schooling.

She said she’s found only one study that explored the effectiveness of no-pass, no-drive policies. Published in the Educational Research Quarterly in 2000, it found that counties in Kentucky that implemented such a policy starting in 1991, supported by a counseling program, were able to close a gap in dropout rates with better-performing counties that chose not to implement the law.

The study’s author, John T. Krimmel, an associate professor of criminology at the College of New Jersey, in Ewing, said in a phone interview last week that, while both the treatment group and control group reduced their dropout rates from 1983-84 to 1993-94, the fact that the gap between them was closed after implementation of the intervention suggests it was successful. Mr. Krimmel acknowledges, though, that he can’t separate out the effect of the threat of license suspension from that of the counseling program.

The problem with no-pass, no-drive policies, Ms. Kidron said, is that they don’t address the challenges that prevent students from attending school. Barring a youth from getting a driver’s license doesn’t help the student get adequate housing, develop strong social-emotional skills, get counseling, or receive tutoring support that may help him or her to succeed in school, she explained.

“Experts would agree that some students may need a little push for their motivation, but a large part of the picture is helping them out. They cannot do it on their own,” she said.

One aspect of some of the no-pass, no-drive policies, however, that is grounded in research, Ms. Kidron added, is that they may lead to increased monitoring of students by school staff members, which can produce early warnings that they are at risk of dropping out.

Cases in Point

But, in K-12 schools, some educators say it’s hard to argue with the anecdotal successes they’ve seen.

In Tennessee, for example, Heidi Ables, the guidance director at McMinn County High School in Athens, said her state’s no-pass, no-drive law has motivated at least a couple teenagers at McMinn to pay more attention to school. Teenagers under age 18 can get driving privileges in that state only if they are meeting compulsory attendance requirements and passing at least three subjects in school.

“I think it’s a very good idea,” she said. “I realize it may be negative to take their license, but it’s something positive to work for. It’s something they truly all want. They can’t wait to get that driver’s license.”

Clynt Goins, a senior at McMinn, said that a warning from a school administrator that his driver’s license would be revoked because of truancy and poor grades spurred him to improve his attendance record and go to summer school to make up two classes he had failed. Without retaking and passing Algebra 1 and junior English during summer school, the 17-year-old said, he likely wouldn’t be on track to graduate this school year.

Student Clynt Goins, 17, stands in front of his truck at McMinn County High School in Athens, Tenn. The state suspended the high school senior's driver's license last year because of truancy and poor grades, but he stepped up his focus on school to get it back. Mr. Goins now credits Tennessee's driver's-license law with keeping him on track to graduate this year.

The state suspended the teenager’s license, but he soon got it back by increasing his focus on school, such as going to school for a long stretch without any unexcused absences.

Mr. Goins said he needed to drive to get to his part-time job milking cows on a dairy farm. “No kid wants to get stuck at home. If they have a job, they don’t want to depend on someone else to pick them up and drop them off,” he said.

But Chris S. Morrison, a school counselor at Oakdale School in Tennessee’s Morgan County, says the 20-year-old law isn’t as effective as it once was because, increasingly, teenagers and their parents turn to homeschooling if they are violating truancy laws. To get a driver’s permit, high school students must get a letter from him with the school seal saying they’ve met the state’s attendance requirement, he explained.

When parents get a court warning that their child has broken truancy laws, increasingly, they “pay these homeschool programs a couple of hundred dollars, get a bunch of books, send in the work, and get grades,” and their child is officially deemed to have an adequate attendance record, he said. Under the state’s no-pass, no-drive law, Tennessee denied or suspended driver’s licenses for 3,700 minors last school year, according to Mike Browning, the director of public affairs for the state’s Department of Safety.

In Florida, another state with a longtime law that ties school attendance for youths younger than 18 to getting and keeping a driver’s license, David F. Westberry, the communications director for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, says the law is “definitely enforced.” According to the state’s 1997 law, youths can get a driver’s permit at age 15, but if they have 15 unexcused absences in a 90-day period, they may not be eligible, he said.

County school boards report to his department the names of youths with truancy problems, he said. “We give them a notice that you better get your act together.”

For fiscal 2010, the Florida highway department sent 24,090 such notices to unlicensed minors, though it doesn’t track how many of those minors ultimately had their licenses delayed. The same year, it suspended the licenses for 5,389 licensed student drivers for missing too much school.

While West Virginia is the first state on record to have a law linking school attendance and driving privileges, officials there have recently focused on carrying out a law passed in 2008 that requires teenagers to be on track for graduation as well to get a driver’s license. That means they must obtain at least three credits in core subjects each year.

West Virginia also recently reduced the number of unexcused absences that a teenager can have to attain or keep a driver’s license from 10 to five days per year. Implementation has gone smoothly, said Rebecca Derenge, who heads up attendance coordination for the state education department.

Getting a Start

New Mexico, however, has run into some problems in plans to carry out its new regulation requiring a score of “nearing proficiency” or better on state reading and math tests for minors to get driver’s permits. The state already uses school attendance as a criterion for driving privileges. The regulation was approved in December 2009 and is scheduled to go into effect in September.

State budget cuts have made it hard to pay for the development of an alternative test that would be used by students in private or home schools to determine if they meet the “nearing proficiency” bar, according to Tom D. Dauphinee, the interim supervisor of the education department’s division of assessment and accountability.

He said the regulation was championed by former Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat. This month, Susana Martinez, a Republican, was sworn in as New Mexico’s governor. Her pick for education secretary, Hanna Skandera, recently took the helm of the education department, but it’s unclear how hard she will press for full implementation of the law.

“We’re in a holding pattern right now,” Mr. Dauphinee said, “watching these recommendations from the stakeholder groups, interested in seeing what the administration wants to do with this provision in the regulations.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as No-Pass, No-Drive Laws Spreading

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