High schools urged to lower dropout rate

High schools are coming under pressure from the federal government to improve the nation's dismal dropout rate — one in four students.

Schools and states now must track and lift the graduation rates for all students, including minorities and students with disabilities, under rules issued Tuesday by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

“In this country today, half of our minority students do not get out of high school on time. That's outrageous,” Spellings said in Columbia.

A school might have a high graduation rate but still have a low rate for black or Hispanic students or for kids with disabilities. Making schools responsible for progress in every group of students puts pressure on schools to improve.

The new rules are an attempt to extend the No Child Left Behind education law to the high school grades, and they come in the waning days of the Bush administration, which made the law a signature domestic achievement.

She announced the rules Tuesday in South Carolina, where the graduation rate mirrors the national average of 73 percent. South Carolina has set a goal of 88 percent.

North Carolina has a 70 percent graduation rate.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools have to meet annual targets for improving graduation rates.

But states are allowed to set their own targets for improvement. And more than half the states have targets that don't make schools get better, according to a study last week by The Education Trust, a children's advocacy group. In some states, all that's required is that schools don't do worse.

South Carolina, despite graduating more kids, only requires schools to do as well or better than they did the year before.

The federal government cannot force states to set more ambitious goals. But it can make states uncomfortable by holding schools accountable — publicly — for failing to graduate more students.

“The power of the spotlight is what's important about No Child Left Behind,” Spelling said.