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NCLB Outrages

Dropouts alarming

By: Rory Schuler

TAUNTON - Imagine an entire High School marching band filing onto a grassy
football field - rows of freshman through seniors holding brass, percussion
and woodwind instruments.

"They march on, play one song, march back off the field and never come
back," said Taunton Schools Superintendent Arthur W. Stellar, using an
analogy he feels accurately describes the reality of current high school
dropout rates.

"That's about 110 kids - probably more. That's what we're talking about,"
Stellar said. "It's five or six classrooms full of students dropping out
ever year."

Students in the city's schools drop out at nearly twice the rate as the
state average, 6.3 percent in Taunton during the 2003-04 school year (a
slight decrease from the prior year), and 3.7 percent statewide.

Stellar said 135 students dropped out of Taunton High School during the
2002-03 school year, but the school experienced an encouraging decrease in
the 2003-04 dropout rate, when only 124 students bailed.

"It's an issue we have to get serious about in this community," Stellar
said. "The question is, if a youngster drops out of high school, what are
they going to do? No longer is there adequate work out there for youngsters
who don't have a high school diploma. It will take a number of years, but
we're addressing it."

One class in particular has experienced a higher than usual student body
drain.

"Where are the juniors?" asked school committee chairwoman Christine A.
Fagan, whose youngest son James P. is a member of the class. She raised the
issue at last week's school committee meeting.

In Taunton, the dropout swell took a dramatic leap between 2001 and 2002,
the year after federal No Child Left Behind legislation cemented
Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests into the public
school curriculum.

The district's dropout rate doubled after the 2001-02 school year - from 3.3
percent to 7.2 percent - and has been holding steady since.

Nearly one-fourth of the Taunton High School's current junior class is no
longer on track to graduate in 2008.

"If this test is driving kids out, perhaps we have to reassess it," Fagan
said. "[My son's] class was the biggest to hit the high school when they
entered as freshman. Now, the numbers are down to the mid-400s, from more
than 600. That's about a quarter missing. I think we have to do something. I
think we owe it to our children. We don't want them to get disheartened or
disenfranchised."

Stellar said 477 students are officially ranked as juniors this year, as
compared to the 616 members of the class - 139 fewer, a 22 percent decrease
- who started as freshman.

Many of those missing students, administrators say, are still in the school
system, but no longer have enough credits to qualify as members of the
junior class.

Retention rates for students making the transition between Taunton's middle
schools and the high school, for the 2004-2005 school year (the last year
for which the state Department of Education has released official
statistics) jumps from 0.7 percent in the eighth grade to 11.8 percent in
the ninth grade - a more than 1,600 percent increase.

That's 12 out of every 100 students repeating portions, and in some cases
all, of their freshman year, as opposed to fewer than one of every 100
students repeating the eighth grade.

As sophomores, high schoolers are faced with the pinnacle exam of their
secondary education career. They must score proficient or better on the MCAS
test to earn an MCAS diploma, and be eligible to graduate as seniors.

"I believe the MCAS is a very challenging test," said Former Taunton Schools
Superintendent and current city councilor Donald L. Cleary. "Students in the
Taunton High School may take that test five or six times, and at some point,
the student recognizes they'll either pass or not pass. Some throw their
arms in the air, and say they'll never pass. They drop out."

Although considerably higher than state averages, the monstrous leap in
Taunton's ninth grade retention rates follows a statewide, and arguably,
nationwide trend.

Cleary described the common practice of retaining ninth graders, whom
educators expect won't pass tenth grade MCAS exams, instead of promoting
them, as a practice quickly "becoming an unwritten policy."

"Kids are not passing as ninth graders because they're not ready to take
MCAS tests, and there's a good chance after another year in ninth grade,
they will [score] better," he explained, adding that retaining more students
in the ninth grade "will help cause a spike in dropouts because nobody likes
to be retained."

The issue is a complicated, tangled web of numbers and theories, not easily
explained away by one factor or statistical analysis. As Cleary says, there
is no "magic answer" why so many students are opting to drop out of school,
rather than follow through to commencement.

It's a public education Catch-22. School districts are faced with funding
cuts, corrective action, and reputation crushing labels if tenth grade MCAS
scores are not collectively high. The good of the school, some critics say,
outweighs the potential harm of holding single students back, even if there
is a risk those students will drop out rather than repeat a grade.

On the other hand, why pass a poorly prepared student with little chance of
scoring proficient?

"If a student is retained, [he or she] is something like 70 percent more
likely to drop out," Cleary said. "But the federal government and the state
Department of Education (DOE) are putting a lot of pressure on schools.
Nobody wants to be [part of] an under performing district. If you can
legally retain students in the ninth grade, because they won't pass, or
because of poor attendance, why not? Why push students to take a test
they're not ready to take?"

A Bay State DOE report on retention rates validates the trend throughout the
commonwealth.

"Overall, schools retained grade nine students at a higher rate than all
other grades," states the report. "Out of the 84,628 students enrolled in
grade nine, 6,881 were retained. This equals a retention rate of 8.1
percent, which is nearly four percentage points higher than any other grade
retention rate. The grade nine retentions accounted for slightly higher than
30 percent of all retentions."

In Taunton, the total number of grade nine retentions are only slightly less
than all other grade retentions combined.

Stellar's analysis of current rates indicates the problem's origins take
root long before freshman year.

"We find most of these students enter the high school without sufficient
skills to do the work," he said. "It's an issue we have to address. We find
that there's a significant number of students who have not achieved basic
skills in math or English language arts [by the ninth grade]."

Educators across the nation, as well as the Taunton School District's
curriculum designers, faculty and administration, are examining current
trends, statistics, and possible solutions to dropout and retention issues.

"The 2003-04 report greatly concerned me," said DOE Commissioner David P.
Driscoll, in a press release, following the release of the dropout report,
which showed the state's dropout rate had increased from 3.3 percent in the
2002-03 school year to 3.7 percent in 2003-04. "It is our responsibility as
educators to do everything we can to ensure that each of our students is
fully engaged in their learning, gets the support they need to succeed in
school and eventually graduate. We need to determine why more of our
children are choosing to leave high school early, and then we have to do
whatever is needed to put an end to this disturbing trend."

In Massachusetts, schools have started assigning identification numbers to
each student, and tracking those unique numbers when students switch
districts.

Two years ago, 48 of 50 state governors agreed to keep more accurate tabs on
incoming freshman, and follow those students for four years, to graduation,
providing more accurate statistics on which students are dropping out.

Locally, Stellar started raising the dropout issue with the school committee
last year, his first with the district. The committee reacted by initiating
a stricter school-wide promotion policy.

The policy requires students pass with 80 percent academic mastery, complete
90 percent of assigned homework, and cannot miss more than 14 school days,
before advancing to the next grade.

After the policy has taken root, "more students will have a stronger
academic background, behaviors and habits" needed to be successful high
school pupils, Stellar said.

"There was a philosophy under Dr. [Gerald A.] Croteau (fellow city councilor
and also a former superintendent), and myself, that retentions occurred only
under the most severe cases, and when it was shown it would clearly benefit
the student," Cleary said. "My understanding is that the retention policy
has been cranked up."

The district has also initiated after school, summer and Saturday programs
aimed at the students who need the most help, focusing on specific areas of
deficiency.

"In the past, dropout rates have not been [the district's] highest
priority," Stellar said. "That's changing. We're talking about 120 to 130
kids per year not getting a high school education, and therefore, their
potential success in life is lowered."

rschuler@tauntongazette.com

— Rory Schuler
Taunton Times
2006-10-01


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