For many teenagers, turning 16 brings the first tastes of independence—like getting a driver’s license or enjoying later curfews. In many states, it’s also the first year thousands of students can legally call it quits and drop out of school.
That would change, however, under proposals brewing in several states to raise the mandatory school attendance age to 18.
Proponents of the idea, who include state schools superintendents and key lawmakers in some states, argue that the move would help slash dropout rates, and keep more students in the classroom at a time when having at least a high school diploma is more important than ever.
John Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit research organization in Raleigh, said it’s not surprising that student-retention policies have attracted more attention. “We are losing a large number of high school students,” he said. But support for changing the mandatory school attendance age has been slow in coming, he concedes. “The response has been muted at best.”
But officials in Arizona, North Carolina, West Virginia, Vermont, and South Carolina are pushing ahead, even as many skeptical educators say the real issue is creating more programs that target students who are at risk of dropping out.
Other observers add that while the proposals may be politically popular, they will lack teeth unless they are accompanied by funding for alternative education programs and remediation strategies to help low-performing students while they are in school.
According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, 29 states require students to stay in school until they are 16. Twelve states and the District of Columbia require students to attend school until they are 18. Nine states mandate school attendance until the age of 17.
Federal data from 2000 showed that 86.5 percent of young Americans had completed high school, up from 85.9 percent the previous year. Critics say, however, that completion rates are misleading because they include students who leave school and later complete alternative programs. (“The Dropout Dilemma,” Feb. 7, 2001.)
One of the states leading a new wave of interest in the issue is North Carolina, where some 21,000 teenagers quit school last year before graduating. State Superintendent Mike Ward wants lawmakers to raise the age of mandatory attendance in the Tar Heel State to 18, as part of a broader effort to rein in the state’s historically high dropout rate.
North Carolina state school board Chairman Phillip J. Kirk Jr. favors changing the age, but said he understands the need to increase the range of education programs offered to students. His bottom line: “We know we have to make high school more exciting and challenging for all students.”
Jay Smink, the executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University in South Carolina, described the proposals as “politically smart,” but said that loopholes already undermine existing laws that require students to be in school until they turn 16.
Mr. Smink noted that about a decade ago a number of states passed legislation that required the automatic revocation of a student’s license if he or she dropped out before reaching the compulsory-attendance age.
While the laws may have gotten the attention of eager new drivers, enforcing the law often became a bureaucratic nightmare, he said. In addition, many students who returned to school after losing their licenses soon dropped out again after coming back to the same educational environment.
“Many districts ignore the compulsory age right now,” he added. Unless more parents are hauled to court when their children don’t go to school, he says, the proposals will be ineffective. “Although it will make headlines, I think it will have minimal impact.”
James Watts, the vice president for state services at the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based compact of 16 states that focuses on education, agreed the plans would be meaningless unless schools do a better job engaging low-performing students.
“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s the wrong thing to do if you don’t implement it with support for teachers and students,” he said. “You’re going to have to work a lot harder with the bottom third of students.”
Arizona state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jaime Molera is urging lawmakers to increase the mandatory attendance age from 16 to 18 to help curb that state’s high dropout rate."We support it,” Penny Kotterman, the president of the 30,000- member Arizona Education Association, said of the proposed change. “It sounds like an absolutely reasonable request. It will be challenging, but most schools have been trying to do it for decades.”
Indeed, it takes a lot more than a change of wording in statutes to help older students who are having trouble in school, educators say. Just take Bostrom Alternative High School near downtown Phoenix, where about 300 students who struggled in traditional schools have found a new start.
Here, students benefit from smaller classes, easy access to counseling, and student mentors to help them stay focused on graduation. Linda Goines, the school’s director, said more of these extra resources would need to be considered if the state expects to benefit from raising the age of mandatory school attendance.
“If kids are now leaving because regular schools aren’t meeting their needs, there are going to have to be other options,” she said.
Bostrom is in the 23,000-student Phoenix Union High School District, which has worked to develop a student-retention plan.
A districtwide effort to provide students at risk of dropping out with individual counseling and academic help has paid off particularly well—the district’s dropout rate has been cut from 17 percent in 1994 to 8 percent in 2000.
Juan Gonzales, an 18-year-old student at Bostrom, left Alhambra High School in Phoenix last year because he never felt comfortable in a school with more than 2,000 students. “The classes were huge, and it was so loud sometimes it was hard to learn,” he said.
Elsewhere, officials at Concord High School in Concord, N.C., launched a freshman academy designed to keep likely dropouts from leaving school. Bill Kinsey, an assistant principal at Concord High, began by talking to dropouts about why they left. He concluded the school could create a more supportive atmosphere.
Working with the middle school counselors and teachers, he identified 50 8th graders who had potential, but who struggled with things like attendance, poor grades, or low self-esteem. A cadre of dedicated teachers was chosen to work with the academy students. Those students now have more flexible schedules, attend smaller classes, and receive extra help with academics.
“The academy teachers are the first line of intervention,” Mr. Kinsey said. “When the students start experiencing success, you have them locked in.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as States Reviewing Mandatory-Attendance Age