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Stem dropouts with differential diplomas

For each of the last five years, it’s been accurate to warn entering high school freshmen that if they look around at their classmates, about one-third of the youngsters they see won’t be present on graduation day almost four years later. They will have dropped out.

But the days of mere 30-35 percent dropout rates are gone; early departures now stand at about 40 percent statewide, as much as 45 percent in some large urban districts including Los Angeles. Charter schools have not stemmed this tide.

Traditional dropouts have been driven by gang activity, plain laziness, curriculum that often seems boring or irrelevant to many students and the need of many youngsters to take jobs and help support their families.

But the newest surge in dropouts has one very different apparent cause: The state’s high school exit exam. Yes, the happy talk at the time results are published each spring tells us that performance is improving year-by-year, that a higher percentage of high school seniors have passed the test by graduation day each year than the year before.

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This may be true for those who take the test. But not for thousands of kids scared away from school by the prospect of sitting for the exam. They know that under today’s rules, if they don’t pass, they won’t graduate. They’ll suffer the humiliation of not walking across the stage with other classmates and never getting to hurl a mortarboard skyward. That won’t be assuaged by an August lawsuit settlement guaranteeing free instruction for up to two years to students who fail the test repeatedly and don’t graduate.

Today’s reality is that many kids quietly leave, perhaps after taking the test and failing it once or twice. (Some students have taken the exam as many as five times before finally passing.) And the overall dropout rate between freshman enrollment day and graduation day rises 5 to 10 percent above previous levels. That’s not exactly what the exit exam was intended for.

Realizing this, and realizing that some kids are simply test phobic and bound to fail despite any remedial instructions and despite meeting all other graduation requirements, some parent groups and state legislators want to create an alternate criterion to qualify for graduation.

But that would be wrong. The exit exam exists to give credibility to high school diplomas in a day of rampant grade inflation and automatic promotions.

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Yet, something needs to be done about those additional dropouts and the problem of having students pass every course, meet every requirement except the exit exam, but still not graduate.

Last spring, at long last, some California school districts realized they have an easy solution at hand, one that allows recognition for students who pass the test while still letting those who meet every other qualification participate in graduation ceremonies and emerge with a diploma.

They gave those students a different kind of sheepskin, calling it a “certificate of completion.” No, these did not have official state recognition as diplomas, but they were signed by all the appropriate local school officials who sign other sheepskins.

The figures are not yet in, but the betting here is that senior-year dropout rates were reduced in the two-dozen or so districts that tried this tactic.

Something like that was clearly needed and still is across most of California. In June of 2006, only 279,000 out of 421,000 high school seniors who started the year actually graduated. The rate was probably worse this year, with specific numbers not yet reported. The state is thus admitting that more than one third of students who start each year as seniors will not graduate.

Those numbers show why it’s crucial to come up with new ways to keep kids in school, even those terrified by the exit exam.

The alternative diploma can do this job, and legislators casting about for a way to stem dropouts while retaining the meat of the exit exam should embrace it.

Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His e-mail address is tdelias@aol.com.

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