Will raising age limit lower dropout rates?

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER and BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 3, 2008 - 6:59 AM

Minnesota school officials are split over whether a bill raising the dropout age from 16 to 18 will make a difference. Prospects for passage are uncertain but are considerably brighter than a month ago.

Should Minnesota follow the lead of many other states and raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 18?

Minnesota legislators hope to solidify just such a proposal in the next few days. The intent is to force at least some of the state's thousands of high school dropouts every year to stay in school. Though there's little evidence nationwide that raising the dropout age improves graduation rates, proponents want to drive the point home that it's bad to leave school at 16 or 17.

"A message that we are OK with you dropping out at 16 doesn't give [students] faith and a belief that they can be high school graduates, and that they deserve a place at a high school graduation," said St. Paul schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

House and Senate members are trying to iron out differences between their proposals for an 18-year-old dropout age.

Prospects for passage are uncertain but are considerably brighter than a month ago.

For many teens who have been on the brink of dropping out and know kids who have left school, it's a no-brainer.

"I don't think [the age] should be 16," said Jordan Cleveland, a junior at Brooklyn Center High School. "You generally don't know what's going on yet."

Certainly, high school graduates do better in life. U.S. Census figures from 2006 show that the average high school graduate made $31,070 a year compared with $20,873 for the average dropout. But will forcing students to stay in school make a difference?

"It's always been my personal belief that when students get to be 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds, their minds are pretty well set," said Lynn Salisbury, principal in charge of alternative school programs in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. "To try to force them to stay in school is counterproductive."

If legislators pass the measure and the governor signs it, Minnesota would join the 18 states and the District of Columbia with a dropout age of 18. Another eight set the age at 17, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Neighboring states that require kids to go to school until 18 include Wisconsin and South Dakota, and other states are debating the issue.

Statewide statistics for the Class of 2007 show 4,928 out of 78,721 Minnesota students dropped out. Another 5,018 students are listed as "unknown." Another 11,264 were classified as "continuing" students because they were still in school but didn't graduate in four years.

Educators say there's a large group of shadow dropouts -- kids who simply stop coming to school once they reach 16 or 17 without notifying school officials. Those kids might be dropping out for good, transferring to a new school, or moving. They make it tough to calculate dropout rates.

Little research to back link

Amid the debate over the dropout age, the graduation picture is brightening. In Minneapolis, the graduation rate for all schools, including charters and alternative programs, rose from 61 percent in 2006 to 67 percent in 2007.

There appears to be no direct correlation between a higher mandatory attendance age and graduation rates. Data from 2004 and 2005 showed that 16 of 28 states that, at the time, had a dropout age of 16 had graduation rates above the national average of 75 percent.

"There's just not a lot of good research out there that shows a link," said Kathy Christie, chief of staff of the Education Commission of the States, which provides data to elected officials nationwide. In Wisconsin, one of the earliest states to set a dropout age at 18, dropout rates began going down after the law was enacted in 1979.

"But no one knows if the drop was solely attributable to the law," said Patrick Gaspar, spokesman for the state's Department of Public Instruction.

Numbers are only part of the story for Hannah Hrabe, 18, a senior at Richfield High School. Hrabe knows 16-and 17-year-olds who dropped out of school. Some of those wound up in alternative school programs.

Hrabe knows two students who dropped out in the past two weeks. And she thought about leaving school after her mother died in an auto accident in 2004. The loss took a toll on her grades, and by the end of her junior year, she had flunked four classes.

"I was thinking, 'I'm never going to make those up, so what's the point in going to school?'" she said. "But I was scared because I didn't know what I would be doing if I dropped out."

She said anything that keeps kids in school is worth trying. "I don't think people are very mature at that age (16 or 17) to make a decision that's going to affect their entire life," she said.

Not every student agrees. Fellow Richfield High senior Isaiah Sutherland said it was his parents' strong opposition and the caring of one of his teachers that persuaded him to stick it out. He doesn't think a new law would carry much clout.

"If you decide to leave and you're not going to school, you obviously don't care about the consequences," he said.

'Not a panacea'

Even proponents of raising the dropout age concede more needs to be done to make sure the kids staying in school can find a reason for being there.

"In and of itself, this is not a panacea, but one of the tools we can use to send a strong message to kids that they need to stay in school," said State Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-North St. Paul, and chief author of the Senate bill raising the dropout age. "It's just one part of it."

No one really knows how much such a law would cost. To keep all, or even most, of the state's 16- and 17-year-old dropouts in the fold would cost the state millions because school funding is on a per-pupil basis, and thousands of kids would be staying in school longer.

The one hard estimate presented this year puts the cost at $564,000 in 2009, but that counts only 173 students age 16 and 17. The Senate bill cites no cost figure and would implement the 18-year-old limit for the 2011-2012 school year.

Jeff Lombardi, guidance director at Brooklyn Center High School, said there's a reality check that's important. "I've been here 31 years, and there never has been a time when 100 percent of our students graduate. Not everyone makes it."

ndraper@startribune.com • 612-673-4547 vonste@startribune.com • 612-673-7184

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