Montgomery, Md., schools back higher dropout age

By Nelson Hernandez
Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Members of the Montgomery County Board of Education voted Monday night to push for an increase in the compulsory age of attendance in Maryland schools. Board members said such a change in state law would reduce the number of students who don't graduate from high school.

The unanimous motion calls for raising the age at which a student can drop out from 16 to 18. But only state lawmakers can increase the age, and repeated efforts have failed in the General Assembly.

In addition, a 2007 study by a state task force concluded that the measure wasn't likely to reduce the dropout rate.

But the graduation rate in the state's largest school system has fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade, and Montgomery County officials are looking for a way to reverse the trend.

Last month, the state reported that the county's graduation rate had fallen from a high of 93 percent in 2003 to 87 percent for the class that graduated this past spring.

Montgomery prides itself on having one of the best large school systems in the United States, and one study of graduation rates found that it was tied for first place among the country's 50 largest school systems. But the county's graduation rate ranked 11th among those of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Of the students who drop out in Montgomery, 26.5 percent are 16 or 17, according to county data. Nearly all the remaining dropouts are 18 or older. The parents of dropouts 15 and younger can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast and school board members said that making it illegal to drop out of school at 16 or 17 would help some students make it to graduation.

Weast said the proposed change wouldn't solve the dropout problem but could have some impact: "Let's just try to knock off the first 25 percent," he said.

The rules on dropouts vary from state to state, and some studies suggest states with a higher compulsory age of attendance have lower dropout rates. A survey by the National Center for Education Statistics counted 16 states, as well as the District, that require school attendance until 18 years of age. (Some states grant waivers for special conditions.)

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