Student Well-Being

Obama Rekindles State Debates on Dropout Age

By Lesli A. Maxwell — February 07, 2012 7 min read
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President Barack Obama’s call for every state to require school attendance until age 18 may spark a flurry of action in some statehouses, but changing attendance laws will do little by itself to drive down the nation’s dropout rates, experts on the issue say.

In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama said states should require that “all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18,” and said that when students aren’t allowed to drop out, “they do better.”

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia already require students to remain enrolled until they are 18 years old, while 11 others require attendance until age 17, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. The other 18 states still use the traditional age of 16 as their attendance requirement, though lawmakers in several of those states have tried unsuccessfully in recent years to raise it.

While bumping up the compulsory-attendance age in state laws sends a strong message to students and parents about the obligation to remain in school, experts and educators alike say that states and districts won’t make much of a dent in their dropout problem without comprehensive strategies for making school engaging and relevant and for spotting and addressing early signs of dropping out.

How Long Must Students Stay in School

Students are required to attend school until age 18 in 21 states and the District of Columbia.

Three states—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and South Dakota—raised the minimum legal dropout age within the past two years.


SOURCE: Education Commission of the States

“The president is saying that we shouldn’t give up on kids as soon as they turn 16, and that we should all see it as our responsibility that they graduate,” said Hedy Chang, the director of the San Francisco-based Attendance Works, a national effort to combat chronic absenteeism. “But it’s not enough to just say, ‘Do as I say.’ Schools have to answer the question of why it matters for these students to be there.”

Since the president’s Jan. 24 speech, at least four states—Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Jersey—have begun debating raising their attendance-age requirements, while Kentucky Gov. Steven L. Beshear, for the third straight year, is calling on lawmakers in that state to raise the attendance age from 16 to 18.

National Picture

Nationwide, roughly 3 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are dropouts because they do not have high school diplomas or General Educational Development credentials, nor are they enrolled in school, according to federal data released in October. That number represents 8.1 percent of the people in that age range.

In spite of billions of dollars in government and private spending aimed at well-intentioned and ambitious efforts to stem the tide of dropouts, the national graduation rate is worse now than it was 40 years ago, despite some recent progress, said Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the California Dropout Research Project.

Raising the required attendance age can help “on the margins,” Mr. Rumberger said, but it places the focus on extrinsic motivation, rather than intrinsic motivation.

“You can legally force these kids to be in school a couple of years longer, but many of them face the same barriers to earning credits and passing an exit exam to actually graduate,” he said. “So what ends up happening is that you prevent them from leaving at 16, but they still may never graduate.”

Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group for the educational needs of poor children, said compulsory-attendance laws put all the responsibility on students.

“We do need to hold our young people accountable for not dropping out,” she said, “but we have to also hold schools accountable for ensuring that students have the supports, the engagement, and the rigor that we know matters for keeping kids in school and succeeding.”

In some states with a compulsory-attendance age of 17, such as Tennessee and West Virginia, lawmakers have tried to up the incentive for staying in school by requiring students to attend until age 18 to retain their driving privileges, according to 2010 data from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based nonpartisan research and policy organization, issued a report in early 2011 with lengthy recommendations on how state lawmakers could most effectively address the dropout problem. Among them was raising the attendance age to 18 and making that requirement more meaningful by tying it to driving privileges and work permits. The report also suggested that states require that students who withdraw from school before graduating receive information on the economic consequences of dropping out and how they can still complete a diploma if they do leave school.

A Case Study

In New Hampshire, lawmakers and state education officials began tackling the state’s dropout problem in 2005.

Working with Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins and one of the nation’s leading experts on dropouts, state education leaders identified the schools and communities with the largest problem, said Paul Leather, the deputy education commissioner in New Hampshire.

Teachers and administrators were then trained on how to spot warning signs that students might be headed for dropping out—chronic absences, for example—and to intervene with those students right away. That early-warning system is now used by schools statewide, Mr. Leather said.

It wasn’t until four years later, in July 2009, that the state’s mandatory attendance age rose from 16 to 18.

“We framed it as a moral imperative for everyone: the community, parents, kids and educators,” Mr. Leather said. “The attitude before had been that if a student makes it through to graduation, then great, and if they don’t, it’s their personal decision.”

But raising the attendance age by itself would have been mostly useless, Mr. Leather said. The most significant factors in driving down the dropout rate have been the creation of multiple pathways to graduation, making the state’s programs in career and technical education and adult education more accessible and setting up “personalized” learning plans that allow students to earn credits for what Mr. Leather calls “anytime, everywhere learning,” or extended learning opportunities.

“We had a young man in one of our rural high schools who wanted to join the military, but he couldn’t pass his senior social studies class,” Mr. Leather said. “So his teachers created an extended-learning opportunity for him in which he worked with a military recruiter and wrote an analysis of who joins the military and presented it as a report.

“That earned him the credit he needed,” he said, “and it was a meaningful learning experience for him.”

To support students who are participating in extended-learning opportunities, most of New Hampshire’s high schools now have a dedicated coordinator, whose sole job is to develop and oversee such plans for students.

For the 2010-11 school year, the cohort rate for New Hampshire students who had dropped out of school and did not earn a GED was 3.3 percent, down from 4.4 percent the previous school year. A 2010 report by Mr. Balfanz’s center notes that, of the six states that raised the compulsory-attendance age between 2002 and 2008, two—Illinois and South Dakota—saw an increase in their high school graduation rates. Only Nevada experienced a graduation-rate decrease.

Opposition Remains

Whether President Obama’s exhortation to states will gain any traction remains to be seen. Setting school attendance requirements has traditionally been the purview of states and local districts, and many efforts have run into fierce opposition to budging from an attendance age of 16. A major reason is cost and issues around local control of schools. As with many state mandates on public education, school districts become responsible for carrying out the endeavor without additional resources to do so, said Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the ECS. That’s also been the case with mandatory attendance laws.

After two failed attempts in Kentucky to move the mandatory attendance age from 16 to 18 statewide, lawmakers there are now attempting to increase the age requirement by passing legislation that would allow local school districts to set the age requirement. When New Hampshire lawmakers first attempted to raise the attendance age, the effort failed because “people realized that just raising the age alone wasn’t going to bring us much success,” Mr. Leather said.

Still, since 2000, nine states have raised the compulsory-attendance age to 18, said Ms. Dounay Zinth.

But all of them have also adopted other strategies to stem dropouts, which makes the change to the age requirement “very hard to isolate as a sole driving factor” in any decreases in their dropout rates, Ms. Dounay Zinth said. Rhode Island became the most recent adopter of the requirement last year, raising its legal minimum dropout age from 16 to 18.

As states have wrestled with the issue over the years, the most prevalent argument against raising the age to 18 has been fiscal, Ms. Dounay Zinth said.

“That argument that it costs more money to keep students in schools makes me cringe,” she said, “especially when you look at the level of spending that states direct to prisons and social services for people who do not finish high school.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as States Mull Obama’s Call to Raise Compulsory-Attendance Age


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