It once was a rite of passage. A student reached 16 and could drop out of high school. With jobs on farms and in factories demanding little education, a high school dropout could earn a living wage.
A year ago, 28 states still allowed students to drop out at 16. Since then several state legislatures have wrestled with raising the age.
“What made sense in 1903 does not make sense in 2006,” said New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, referring to the year his state set the standard for dropping out at 16.
In Virginia, the age was raised to 18 in 1989.
The National Education Association and the National Parent Teachers Association last week urged that states require students to attend school until age 21 if they have not received a high school diploma.
“Just as we established compulsory attendance to the age of 16 or 17 at the beginning of the 20th century, we must now eradicate the idea of ‘dropping out’ before you achieve your diploma,” said NEA President Reg Weaver.
Some local school officials in Prince William County support keeping the mandatory age at 18.
“I don’t agree that compulsory attendance until age 21 is the answer,” said Myka Gray, an assistant principal at Gar-Field High School in Woodbridge. “There are so many physiological implications surrounding this proposal, not to mention the financial impact of a potentially burgeoning student population. Maybe the focus should be on working with and enhancing the system that we have in place to produce more high school graduates.”
In Prince William County Public Schools the dropout rate was 2 percent last year, according to the Washington Area Boards of Education. In Manassas, the rate was 2.1 percent.
In some states, raising the compulsory age to even 18 can be a hard sell.
In West Virginia, the state legislature this year turned down a proposal to raise the age because too many feared it would keep “troublemakers” in school.
In Florida, Republican State Sen. Lee Constantine proposed allowing individual school districts to raise the mandatory age if they wanted to. But at the last minute, he said, the provision was pulled.
The reason, he said, was money. Florida has a high dropout rate. If every school district required every student to stay in school until 18, it would cost the state more money than legislators were willing to pay.
“It’s sad to think that some school districts want students to drop out because it will cost them less,” Constantine said.
In Indiana, the story was different. Legislators raised the age limit after they realized how bad the dropout problem really was, said Luke Messer, the Republican representative who sponsored the bill.
For years, legislators thought the dropout rate was about 10 percent and concluded those were “just a few bad apples,” Messer said. But when studies compared the number of students starting in ninth grade with the number graduating, the dropout rate became 30 percent.
“That was the epiphany in our state,” he said. “No one believes that 30 percent of our students are bad apples.”
High school reform is pushing this movement and new studies are challenging official data about the magnitude of the dropout problem. Some studies now conclude the drop out rate may be as high as 30 percent nationwide, hitting more than 50 percent with African Americans and Hispanics.
Merely raising the mandatory age will not solve the dropout problem, education analysts say. But making the change sends a message to students and parents.
“It’s odd that we have a moral and financial commitment to get kids through the 12th grade and then we let them drop out at 16,” said John Bridgeland, who surveyed high school dropouts for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Raising the age must be coupled with programs to help students who are falling behind to catch up; to help those who need money to couple work with school; and to help those who are bored with school to have opportunities to take community college classes while completing high school, education analysts say.
“If a student is getting all F’s and there is no intervention program, then common sense will tell you he will find better luck not being in school any more,” said Hoor Bhanpuri, who studied dropouts for Learning Point Associates, an education research firm.
Perhaps most important, he said, is creating a tracking system so schools know which students are in danger of dropping out and what has happened to students who have left the system.
Virginia has just started such a program.
The state raised the mandatory age to 18 in 1989, yet the state has little idea what effect that has had on the number of students leaving school early, said Charles Pyle, the department’s spokesman.
Now the department is collecting data on students from the time they enter seventh grade until they graduate, he said.
The NEA is asking the federal government for $10 billion over 10 years for this and other dropout prevention programs.
Some education analysts question whether that would be worth the cost.
“We need to raise the age from 16 to 18,” said Dane Linn, education analyst for the National Governors Association. “But there’s only so much money to go around. Let’s not put all of our eggs in the basket of raising attendance to 21.”
Gil Klein is a national correspondent for Media General News Service. Amanda Stewart contributed to this report.