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What States Can Do to Raise High School Grad Rates

If the United States is ever going to get to the goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020, it is going to take some advocacy and innovation by state legislatures.

That was the consensus among a panel of experts in education and policy in a discussion today about state-level strategies for raising high school graduation, college, and career-readiness rates at the Grad Nation Summit in Washington.

The Civic Marshall Plan, developed last year as part of the Grad Nation initiative, aims for the class of 2020 to earn 600,000 more degrees than the class of 2008. It has set benchmarks to achieve this: By 2012, the goal is to get more students reading on grade level by the beginning of 5th grade, reduce chronic absenteeism, and do a needs assessment for all "dropout factory" communities. In 2013, the hope is that each low-graduation school district will have early-warning and intervention systems, that middle schools be redesigned, and that a nonprofit mentor will work with every 15-20 off-track students. Then by 2016, all dropout factories should be in the process of being transformed or replaced, transition-student supports set up in grades 8-10, compulsory school age increased to 18 in all states, and clear pathways designed to college and career.

Those advances will require policy changes. State legislatures can play a critical role in fostering a sustaining urgency to improve high school graduation rates, said Sunny Deye, program principle for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which formed a task force on dropout prevention and released its recommendations in January. States also can set up offices of student dropout prevention and provide annual updates on progress in graduation rates, as was recently done in Colorado and Mississippi.

To improve performance, state lawmakers also should insist on rigorous curriculum and high standards. "We get what we expect," said Deye. "We need high expectations for all students."

The task force also recommended putting excellent teachers, principals, and caring adults in schools, including counselors and graduation coaches to create a college-going culture. Deye said as early as middle school, some states are requiring students to develop individual career and academic plans, including a resume and goals to motivate them.

And, along with the theme of the recent report on dropout-factory schools, states can build capacity to transform or replace low-graduation-rate high schools, said Deye.

Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the massive transition taking place now in government and among local school board members presents an opportunity to educate policymakers about the dropout crisis. As states set new graduation goals, it's encouraging that all have aimed at 80 percent or higher, said Wilhoit. The new standard calculation to compare graduation rates across states will make it easier to compare targets and annual progression, he said.

State Rep. Gregory Porter said the economic downturn in the past few years cost his state of Indiana thousands of manufacturing jobs. Last year, 23,000 students did not graduate from high school in Indiana, which translates into a $6.1 billion hit to the state's economy.

To counter those problems, the state has introduced legislation to address absenteeism, support early-childhood learning, invest in community colleges, and raise the dropout age from 16 to 18. To convince the public and business community about the importance of these initiatives, Porter said lawmakers needed to talk about the economic impact. "That's real. Then people begin to understand this is something we need to embrace," said Porter. "We need to have a new journey."

It's a challenge to move forward on this agenda as budget cuts are getting larger by the day, said panel moderator Dane Linn, education division director for the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association. Rather than blanket 10 percent cuts, the NGA is trying to give governors solid data and a better understanding of what programs are working to make informed decisions about cuts, said Linn.

"We have to be smarter about how we are using resources," said Wilhoit. "Cuts are happening without a lot of information."


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