THE PATH TO a D.C. high school diploma was once a straightforward proposition: Enroll in the ninth grade, receive passing grades, complete all school requirements and, four years later, attend graduation exercises. That route to completion of public school is likely to change under a plan that School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey plans to launch in fall 2006. The superintendent intends to offer students the option of a fifth year in high school, or more time, to complete their requirements. Mr. Janey's departure from tradition may be necessary, but the reasons for it are no cause for cheering.

While acknowledging that their statistics are less than reliable, D.C. school officials say they are grappling with a high dropout rate among students in grades nine through 12. One school system report, according to Post staff writer V. Dion Haynes, showed that of the 4,207 students who enrolled as ninth-graders in 2000, only 2,740 graduated four years later. Of course, some of the students may have transferred out of the D.C. school system, but at this point, D.C. officials have no way of knowing. They do know that the system has a large number of students at risk of not finishing high school. Thus Mr. Janey's flexibility on high school completion, or as critics might charge, his loosening of attendance standards.

The completion date is not being extended, Mr. Janey would argue, to give lagging students more time to hang out with friends. The plan calls for using the additional year to provide students who have fallen behind with the tutoring and support services they need to complete their requirements. The additional time could also be used by students who work or have other responsibilities, such as raising children. To add balance, the Janey plan will also offer a three-year track for students interested in earlier graduation. But the main thrust of the new effort is to cut the dropout rate and improve attendance and graduation rates.

But the whole exercise turns on the D.C. school system's ability to keep track of students, including something as basic as attendance records. At this stage, the school system cannot speak with confidence about its statistics on student transfers or dropout rates. Absent a tracking system that produces reliable data, an extended school year could augur more of the same, only with a longer time frame for discovery of the disaster. The five-year option requires sound school administration and accountability, two components currently in short supply in the school system.