It’s a nickname no principal could be proud of: “Dropout Factory,” a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year. That dubious distinction applies to more than one in 10 high schools across America.
There are about 1,700 regular or vocational high schools nationwide that fit that description, according to an analysis of Education Department data conducted by Johns Hopkins for The Associated Press. That’s 12 percent of all such schools, no more than a decade ago but no less, either.
The highest concentration of dropout factories is in large cities or high-poverty rural areas in the South and Southwest. Most have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around, because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones—the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services.
“Part of the problem we’ve had here is we live in a state that culturally and traditionally has not valued a high school education,” said Jim Foster, a spokesman for South Carolina’s Department of Education. He noted that South Carolina residents once could get good jobs in textile mills without a high school degree, but that those jobs are now much harder to come by.
House and Senate proposals to renew the five-year-old No Child law would give high schools more federal money and put more pressure on them to improve, and the Bush administration supports the idea.
The current law imposes serious consequences on schools that report low scores on math and reading tests, such as having to replace teachers or principals, but it lacks the same kind of teeth when it comes to graduation rates.
Nationally, about 70 percent of U.S. students graduate on time with a regular diploma. For Hispanic and black students, the proportion drops to about half.
The legislative proposals would:
* Make sure schools report their graduation rates by racial, ethnic and other subgroups and are judged on those. That’s to ensure schools aren’t just graduating white students in high numbers, but also are working to ensure minority students get diplomas.
* Get states to build data systems to keep track of students throughout their school years and more accurately measure graduation and dropout rates.
* Ensure states count graduation rates in a uniform way. States have used a variety of formulas, including counting the percentage of entering seniors who get a diploma. That measurement ignores the fact that kids who drop out typically do so before their senior year.
* Create strong progress goals for graduation rates and impose sanctions on schools that miss them. Most states currently lack meaningful goals, according to The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for poor and minority children.
The current law requires testing in reading and math once in high school, and those tests take on added importance because of serious consequences for a school that fails. Critics say that creates a perverse incentive for schools to encourage kids to drop out before they bring down a school’s scores.