What Would Changing Kentucky’s Dropout Age Do?

If Kentucky raised its legal dropout age, would the state see its graduation rate go up? The numerical logic seems simple, but competing advocates and researchers argue that human behavior isn't like math. In an AP story, Janet Cappiello reports that the state's officials are leaning toward raising the age, regardless of uncertainty.

Kentucky's graduation rate of 77.8 sounds poor until it's compared with the national average of 78.2. Other states struggle with the same problem; Oregon's low 68% graduation rate shocked the state into hiring a Chief Education Officer whose job was just to raise the rate of on-time graduation even a few percentage points. With great effort, Oregon has seen no immediate benefit. Only an extra year, allowing public school until age 19, helped at all.

But Kentucky has been permitting students to leave school legally at 16. The current Governor and First Lady of Kentucky believe it's time to change this tradition.

Kentucky education experts say 6,000 to 7,000 students a year drop out of high school in the state, where it's been legal since 1920 to do so at age 16 with parental permission.

First lady Jane Beshear has for several years been pushing lawmakers to raise the age to 18, as it is in 15 other states. Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear said during his State of the Commonwealth speech Wednesday that a bill to gradually raise the dropout age will be a priority during the 2013 legislative session.

Some advocates agree with the Governor in supporting the change, even if just for the message that it sends students.

Stu Silberman, executive director of the nonprofit Prichard Committee for Educational Excellence, said Kentucky's graduation legislation must be passed because it "sets the mindset that we're serious about this and we expect you to stay in school," Silberman said.

But other argue that requiring students to sit in school does not actually translate to a higher graduation rate. The Brookings Institution reports that states with higher legal dropout ages may actually have lower graduation rates. A student who was interviewed also pointed out that attending does not mean succeeding, trying or graduating.

Several advocates agreed that a better plan is to maintain more options for older students. Alternative high schools that allow a student to work or care for a baby can make the difference between completing education and not. Some official dropouts begin to attend these alternative schools, so they are not fully dropped out.

Additionally, the principal of an alternative school said that most of his students are actually over 18. While some come to the alternative tracks at younger ages, many students stay in mainstream high schools because they cannot get their parents' permission to leave. The fact that they attend alternative schools after the age of 18 shows that they do care about completing school, but that they were not able to succeed in the traditional mainstream structure.

Specialized vocational schools could be part of the solution, suggested Silberman. Independently, there is a nationwide call for better technology education. Not all at-risk students can succeed in classes that target hands-on learning, but helping them "find their niche" is the likeliest path to success.

But state officials say that Kentucky's economy needs to have any possible solutions applied, and if raising the dropout age from 16 to 18 might help, it should be tried. School administrators worry that those 7000 students who drop out each year would need programs that, right now, the schools can't afford. That's one reason why Kentucky's school age law hasn't been changed since 1920.

Similar bills failed in 2011 and 2012 under criticism that they amounted to an unfunded mandate that would cost already strapped school districts millions of dollars to educate the extra students.

Saying that the change should be viewed not as a drain, but as "an investment," Silberman urged the state to do whatever it could to make the change happen. Since dropouts are more likely to end up in state care, probably in prison or on welfare, the expenditure could be a savings.

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