Local News

State Eyes Higher Dropout Age

Posted January 31, 2007 11:47 a.m. EST
Updated January 31, 2007 6:01 p.m. EST

— North Carolina education leaders are looking at raising the legal age to leave high school as a way to curb a rising dropout rate.

The dropout rate in 2005-06 was 5.04 percent, up from 4.74 the previous year, according to an annual report presented Wednesday to the State Board of Education.

Four of every five dropouts occurred between the ages of 16 and 18, according to the report, prompting officials to discuss the idea of raising the legal dropout age from 16 to 18.

"We are sending students the wrong message when we tell them it's acceptable to drop out of school at 16," Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee said in a statement. "At a minimum, our students need a high school diploma as a stepping stone to future success."

Still, Lee said he recognized other changes would still be needed to battle the dropout problem.

"We have to have some intervention to keep kids in school," he told WRAL. "They're not going to stay just because we revise the age."

Five of the largest school districts, including those in Wake and Cumberland counties, accounted for 56 percent of the 22,180 dropouts in the ninth through 12th grades, the report said. The number of dropouts is about 2,000 more than last year and is the highest since the 1999-2000 school year.

"Right now, we have 22,000-plus kids who have a different future than they had last year, and that's terrible," Board of Education member Jane Norwood said.

A 2006 study by Harvard University and the Urban Institute showed nearly one-third of the North Carolina students who started high school, didn't graduate on time. The national average was 69 percent.

Lee said he found the dropout results troubling, but said he expects the trend to improve in coming years as the state's efforts to improve its high schools take root.

"The board, the Department of Public Instruction and other organizations are working closely with local districts to reinvent high schools to make them more rigorous and relevant to today's students," he said in the statement. "The fact that we see a significant increase in students dropping out to enroll in community colleges shows that they understand education will be important to their future. Life is demanding in the 21st century, and we need to make sure students are ready to meet those challenges."

State law requires school officials to record the reason for a student's decision to drop out. In the past three years, the number of students choosing to leave high school to enroll in community college has risen from 7 percent of the total to 12.1 percent, according to the annual report.

A majority of dropouts continue to be related to attendance issues, the report said. Other reasons identified include students moving and academic problems.

Almost one-third of all dropouts occur during the ninth grade, with another quarter coming in 10th grade and 22.4 percent of students dropping out in 11th grade.

Boys drop out at more than twice the rate of girls, the report said. Blacks accounted for a disproportionate amount of the increase in the dropout count, with an 8.4 percent jump among black boys, the report said.