Public schools have many ways of determining success
or failure. Today’s prevalent mode is standardized student testing. Each
testing scheme’s goal is to determine which students have met graduation
criteria. All parents want their children to graduate and envision their
children walking across the stage to receive high school diplomas. Many
parents will not see this because many children, for various reasons, drop
out of the educational system. Will more emphasis on testing improve the
Educational Systems Will “Cook the Books”
The Houston, Texas, school system was recognized by
President Bush as an educational model for decreasing the student dropout
rate through high student expectations and standards. Houston’s success
was one of the focal points of the President’s “no child left
behind” initiative. Houston reported a dropout rate of 1.5 percent in
the year 2000-2001. The public has since discovered that students were
improperly classified in an effort to lower the dropout rate.
Dr. Rod Paige, secretary of education who was the
superintendent of the Houston public schools, should have known that these
numbers were derived by “cooking the books.” Most educators could tell
you that a 1.5 percent dropout rate is very difficult to obtain even in a
very affluent school system. Bonuses for Houston educators were tied to
the school dropout rates and test scores, which encouraged statistical
manipulation. Schemes to encourage students with poor academic records to
drop out of school also inflated the standardized scores.
The Virginia Dropout Record
The Virginia Department of Education Web site
provides information on the dropout rates in Virginia’s public schools.
If you look at the dropout tables for the various school systems you see
that the dropout percentage ranges from 0 percent to 5.47 percent. The
state average is 2.02 percent, which appears to be a good number until you
look a little closer. That average is derived from a school population
consisting of grades 7-12. How many seventh- and eighth-graders drop out?
Most students leave school in the upper grades; so including seventh- and
eighth-graders artificially lowers the dropout percentage. It’s a form
of cooking the books. What the public should be more concerned about is
the graduation rate, and that statistic shows a much different picture of
Virginia’s average high school graduation rate is
75 percent. One in four students won’t make the trip across the stage to
receive the coveted diploma. The statistics for different ethnic groups
are: African-American, 66 percent; Asian, 86 percent; Hispanic, 62
percent; white, 78 percent. The national average is 69 percent.
Virginia’s graduation rate ranks 18th and the dropout rate of 3.9
percent ranks eighth. Virginia’s rankings are acceptable when compared
to other states, but in my view these statistics just cover up the failure
of education to meet the needs of too many students. More and better
testing schemes alone won’t lower the dropout rate.
Behavior Risk Categories
There are four major categories of risky behavior in
late childhood and adolescence: (1) drug and alcohol use and abuse; (2)
unsafe sex, teenage pregnancy, and teenage parenting; (3) school
underachievement, school failure, and dropout; and (4) delinquency, crime
and violence (Dryfoos, 1990).
Involvement in one or more of these categories of
behavior can very adversely impact a child’s life. The school is only
one of the parties that can determine a child’s risk in each category.
Failure in school can certainly lead to a child’s increased risk in
other categories; but most likely the home environment plays the primary
role in preventing the child from straying down one of these paths.
Increasing school academic requirements without addressing the other risk
factors will contribute little to improving the graduation rate. To
accomplish the goal of having more students completing 12 years of
education, society needs to concentrate on behavior problems as well as
Finding a Better Way
Today’s children’s lives are complex and don’t
easily fit the old school model of “one size fits all.” Virginia
offers some variation in diploma offerings; Standard Diploma, Advanced
Studies Diploma, Special Diploma, Certificate of Completion, GED, ISAEP,
and Modified Standard Diploma. Ninety-three percent of the students who
graduate complete a Standard or Advanced Studies diploma. The number of
modified standard diplomas is very small. In my view the diploma is just
one step in a lifelong commitment to learning. The first 12 years are just
that, 12 years. Our goal should be to keep students in school for 12 years
and to provide some type of evaluation of achievement that will help them
continue their education in a variety of ways. College is just one of many
Ensuring that students complete 12 years of schooling
beyond kindergarten should be the goal of public education. At the end of
12 years, students should be given some document that denotes their
achievement. A system that in any way encourages the student to drop out,
for whatever reason, is a system that has failed both the student and
society. If a college diploma is obtained at age 30 versus age 22, do we
consider the graduate a failure? Why do we look at kids who don’t
complete all educational requirements by the age of 18 as failures? We
need to have a system that continues to track them and offer additional
education opportunities in conjunction with work opportunities. Schools do
a poor job following up on students, both graduates and dropouts.
Obtaining the elements of education is more important
than when they are obtained. The “when” should be viewed more like a
path made with a wide paint brush than a path made by a fine-point pen.
George Johnson, former president of George Mason University, told a
faculty member when asked why the university was offering a given degree
that, “It’s a large tent that can cover many animals.” I think a
high school diploma should be the same, and cover the needs of many kids.
Making the graduation standards tough is easy. Finding the answer to the
dropout problem is far more difficult.
there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different
view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending
comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to: DrBmailbag@aol.com,
or send written responses to the editor. Mail will be forwarded
to the author.