Are we setting our young people up for failure on a massive scale in high schools that no longer work? This stark view has taken hold in high places. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates recently called the American high school "obsolete," while Virginia Gov. Mark Warner unveiled a National Governors Association initiative to "redesign the American high school."
In pursuing that essential task, we must bear in mind that up to half of the high school-age youth in parts of this country aren't in school -- yet they still need high school educations to reach their potential.
President Bush's current push to extend his No Child Left Behind testing regimen to high schools is an acknowledgment of a silent crisis: Millions of teenagers are being failed by their schools. The president believes testing is the tool we need to make sure high school graduates are prepared to succeed in higher education and the workplace. But what about those who never make it to graduation day? In touting the importance of more tests, we must also pledge to examine graduation rates. What percentage of the students who enter ninth grade make it through high school and earn diplomas? Those numbers are as shocking as any test scores.
The Urban Institute reports that, nationwide, the graduation rate for the class of 2001 was just 68 percent. Rates for African American, American Indian and Hispanic students were closer to 50 percent. For the District of Columbia, the graduation rate was 65 percent.
Yet, as Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute has shown, public school graduation rates are far lower than is commonly reported, because many states and school districts count in ways that overstate the rate. Children who have indeed been left behind are thus rendered statistically invisible.
But we know the education pipeline is leaking -- and we know where those who fall out are likely to end up. At best they gain tenuous footholds on the low rungs of the economic ladder. At worst they wind up in prison or dead.
Students who do not finish high school will not succeed in 21st century America. We will never test our way out of this problem without getting the graduation numbers right. If we fudge those numbers, we cannot truly hold our schools accountable -- no matter how many tests we administer to the kids who remain.
At the same time, we must stop writing off our older youth as lost causes if they can't succeed in troubled high schools. We must enable young people who have dropped out or been pushed out of school to reconnect.
If you're out of school, over age for your grade and have few credits toward graduation, how can you get back on track? If you're released from juvenile detention, how do you find a school where you'll be given a genuine second chance? If you're a teen parent, how can you meet your obligations to your child and to your own future? If you're a foster child bouncing through a half-dozen placements during your high school years, how can you find the school stability you need? What if you're a recent immigrant with limited English skills -- is there a school that can meet your needs as a learner? There are many good answers to these questions, but no systemic solution. We have only what the first President Bush called "points of light."
In Flint, Mich., and other communities, a "middle college high school" option allows at-risk students to complete high school in a small-school environment while earning their first college credits at the local community college. In Boston, new immigrants at the Boston Adult Technical Academy can set their sights on a high school credential and a transition to college through the Diploma Plus program. In San Jose, the United Way is building a partnership that includes school districts, the district attorney's office and other key players to reconnect struggling students to educational options. In the District of Columbia, Maya Angelou Public Charter School reaches out to students who have experienced substantial trauma in their lives by maintaining contacts with probation officers, social workers, special education advocates and community groups. Classes are small, expectations are high, and a range of supportive services is in place to help kids make it.
A determination is brewing in these communities to look themselves in the mirror and say, "These are our children. They are the future of our workforce and the future of our democracy. We cannot afford to abandon them."
The push for more testing must be accompanied by a new insistence on accurate high school graduation rates. And any broader campaign to redesign our high schools must include building a world-class second chance system for young people the schools have already failed. No child left behind, for real.
The writer is an associate vice president for programs at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, based in Flint, Mich.