BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer
A law designed to create a new state assessment test could encourage schools to let more students drop out, critics say.
The law, known as House Bill 53, lays out the ways schools can receive financial rewards based on how well their students do on the state test.
When the state created the current exam, schools needed dropout rates below 5 percent to qualify for the bonus cash.
Since 1992 when the first test was given, 3,116 Northern Kentucky students have left school out of an average total of 22,720 students attending high school each year, according to data from the state Education Department's division of assessment information. Included in the dropout rate are students who left to attend school elsewhere and other students who quit altogether.
Starting this fall, schools that meet all other requirements for financial rewards will be allowed a dropout rate up to 8 percent. That figure is a problem, critics contend. It's higher than the national average of 5 percent and higher than the state's average of 5.53 percent for the 1995-96 school year.
On top of that, the number of students retained or "held back" a grade is also on the rise in Kentucky. That creates a problem because retained students are traditionally more likely to drop out.
"The last thing we need is any incentive for our high schools to stop doing everything they can to help these kids," said Richard Innes, an education reform critic from Villa Hills who has researched the state's dropout statistics.
"Unfortunately House Bill 53 provides precisely such negative stimulus. I almost wonder if someone in the hierarchy said, "Let's get rid of these kids.' "
Under the state's financial rewards program, schools are not severely penalized for dropouts. If weak students drop out before taking the assessment test, schools stand to receive a higher rating. The weak students won't bring down the overall scores because they won't be there.
School officials say the concerns are unfounded.
The region's 18 school districts have dozens of programs in place, from the preschool level to summer school to post-graduation, to ensure that all students are given the best opportunity to complete their education -- or to return to school if they dropped out earlier. "I don't understand why they changed that rate, but there are some things in life you don't pay attention to because they don't change what you're about," Kenton County Superintendent Neil Stiegelmeyer said.
Kenton County schools have lost 478 students since 1992. That's not a large number considering there are more than 12,000 students in the district.
Kenton County's dropout rate for the 1995-96 school year was 2 percent, according to the most recent data from the division of assessment information. Kenton County's rate is one of the lower ones in the region.
"I'm still trying to find a way to get to the parents that think it's OK for kids to drop out," Mr. Stiegelmeyer said. "We put more boulders in the way, but sometimes the kids just stop coming to school. Hopefully we can break that cycle."
Kevin Hill, specialist in the division of assessment information that compiles the dropout data, said he had no input on the establishment of the 8 percent cutoff rate.
"The overall trend seems to be that dropout rates are leveling off. The numbers are really pretty flat statewide," Mr. Hill said. "But I'm sure there are concerns. Eight percent is a pretty high number."
Within the Northern Kentucky districts, dropout rates for students in grades 7 through 12 run from a low of 0 percent in Beechwood, Silver Grove and Southgate schools to more than 5 percent for Covington, Dayton and Newport schools.
When dropout rates are calculated using only high school students in grades 9 through 12, the figures for most districts do not reflect a large change.
But when numbers are narrowed for the high school level, those schools already showing high dropout rates tend to show a significant increase since 1992.
Covington schools show an increase in high school dropouts from 7.16 percent in 1993 to 8.22 percent in 1996. The district lost 567 students during that time.
Dayton schools jumped from 3.74 percent to 8.26 percent during those same years. The figures represent 115 students who left school. Gallatin County schools went from 5.62 in 1993 to 10.10 percent in 1995. In 1996, Gallatin County dropped its rate to 5.28 percent. The figures account for 129 students who dropped out of school. Newport schools went from 10.15 percent in 1993 to 7.18 percent in 1994. Figures went back up to 10.81 percent in 1995 but dropped again in 1996, down to 7.28 percent. That's 368 students without a high school diploma.
Administrators from these school districts said the numbers don't tell the whole story. Some students move to other schools; some drop out because of pregnancy or a need to work and return to school later.
And some come from families where a high school diploma is not seen as a necessary achievement.
Critics say the high school figures are telling for several reasons. Students are allowed to drop out once they turn 16, and students must take the state assessment test in 11th grade.
Mr. Innes contends that the only penalty to the school is a higher dropout rate. He points out that the accountability rules associated with the new test will likely be very similar to rules used now.
Under the old formula, dropouts count for 4 percent of a school's score. If a student leaves, the high school gets a benefit in all the other 96 percent of score elements, far outweighing the dropout's 4 percent factor, Mr. Innes said.
"It pays a high school if a weak kid drops out before he takes the test," he said.
Covington Superintendent James Kemp said his school district spends much more money on preventive, alternative and adult education programs than it would ever receive in financial incentives from the state assessment test.
The district offers educational sessions for parents of all students, child care for teen parents, after-school, summer sessions and adult education for people within and outside the city of Covington. "In our society, until 20 years ago you could still succeed in the world with only a high school diploma or even without one," Covington Superintendent James Kemp said. "You could go to Newport Steel and get a job. Now they've converted to robotics and you need more technical information, you need a degree.
"This is what many of our adults are finding today. Those who graduate with only a high school diploma with no additional training are finding themselves farther behind and it's harder and harder for them to make ends meet."
At the elementary level, Covington schools offer transition programs to work with students and families whose behaviors, background and characteristics show that the student is at risk of dropping out or not being able to complete school.
One of the district's most distinct programs is the adult high school, housed at the former Fifth District School. Mr. Kemp said that between 1,500 and 2,000 students go through the program in any given year, though not all students complete the course work. About 100 graduate each year.
Students come from varied backgrounds and encompass a variety of age groups. And many are former dropouts trying to put their lives back on track.
Elizabeth Schadler, 19, will graduate this week. The young mother dropped out of Owen County High School when she was two months pregnant.
"I was working and I was pregnant and I was just always tired and didn't have the energy to come to school," Ms. Schadler said between classes at the adult high school.
After working for several months as a nurse's aide, Ms. Schadler gave birth to Abigail in April. Then she realized she need to do something better with her life.
"I wanted to make it better for my baby and me," Ms. Schadler said. "Now I can tell my daughter I got my diploma and I can encourage her to get her diploma when she gets older."
Ms. Schadler said she plans to attend a vocational college next for computer training because "It's something that pays more." Boone County Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said the state limits schools' success rates by setting an acceptable level of dropouts. "Eight percent is not very high in its expectations. We need to continue to improve," Mr. Blavatt said. "If you look at the causes, some of them are unavoidable. But you have to find out why kids are dropping out and if there are circumstances you can control you need to address them."
Boone County's dropout rate for 1996 was 2.30 percent. Since 1992 the district lost 552 students.
There are alternative and vocational programs in place to keep all children in school and the district plans to re-evaluate its vocational program next year.
"We have to look at stuff that is more germane to kids today. A lot of it is antiquated and outdated," Mr. Blavatt said. "Not every youngster will conform to the instructional pattern we want for college bound or not college bound."