Have you ever ran across an article that leaves you scratching your head, not because you doubt its truth, but because it seems like some research wonk in the media has just 'discovered' a situation that you've known about for years?
That just happened to me a few minutes ago. I was perusing CNN.com, and ran across this article on a high performing high school that is forcing low performing students to drop out because the school is rated on overall test performance.
And the case they cite might not even be considered completely one-sided, since the article makes it clear that the student they profiled (though there are others as well) was only pushed out of that school, not out of school altogether, and she may have contributed to her own academic deficiencies by absenteeism and disciplinary problems-- though it is only in the new world of conservative double speak where the way to solve a problem with a student playing hooky is to make them leave the school. However, I've known personally about more egregious cases than that. In my line of work, I've talked to a number of young people just in the past year or two who told me that they didn't finish school because after failing standardized tests the first time around they were advised by their high school advisors to drop out, and did so (though I'm happy to say that none of the students who told me this had gone to my own local high school-- if they had, I'd raise heck with the school board about it.) This is a disturbing new development-- I thought school counselors were supposed to encourage students to stay in school, not advise them to drop out and become quitters.
As far as absenteeism is concerned, all I know is that I've not met a truant officer for decades. Are there still any out there? My best guess is that the reason they've disappeared is probably some combination of legal requirements and regulations (probably, to be honest, imposed by liberals) and budget cuts (imposed by conservatives.) Maybe there still are some, and I just haven't met any (luckily my own kids have never required their services-- whatever problems they've had in school, unauthorized absence wasn't on the list.)
An even deeper level of this problem is that in some school districts it seems that students are flunked more often in specific grades, primarily because of the fear that they will perform poorly on standardized tests. For example, according to data collected by Walt Haney and his colleagues at Boston College, the number of ninth graders in 2000 nationwide exceeded by 13% the number of students who were in eighth grade nationwide in 1999 (source.) By 2000 (which is before the implementation of NCLB) a lot of states had already implemented standardized testing at the tenth grade level, and in many of them performance on these tests was already tied in various ways to school funding. So, apparently students were 'held back' at a much higher rate in the ninth grade than they were in the eighth or other grades so that they would have another year of being 'taught to the test' before they had to lay it on the line. Now, I have no problem with the concept of holding back a student if it is warranted by a failure to learn the material in the grade level in question (in this regard I disagree with the author of the source article), but that should apply to all grade levels, not just the grade before it is time to take the test.
One proposal I have heard and which I favor is to restructure high school similar to what we have in college-- there would no longer be formal grades, but students would have to complete a certain level of classes (including certain specific core courses). Students would be placed in classes based on similar background and abilities, rather than age; If necessary, students could be put into a course that came before the core curriculum course, while others might be able to jump into a course that is a year or two more advanced than their former eighth grade classmates. Four years might be an average time to spend in school, but some students might be able to do it in three years while others might need five or six (if beyond six years then we might consider a transition program into the community college where they could earn a diploma or equivalent while using the high school credits they had to that point accumulated and additional work at the community college.) The whole stigma/expectation associated with age and grade level would likely erode in this kind of environment. Why exactly is it more important that a tenth grader should be in an English class with other tenth graders rather than with other students (of whatever grade level) who have similar writing skills? In this environment completion of the core curriculum would show proof of knowlege so there would be no need for standardized testing, but if it was insisted there had to be then take it after the student has completed say a specific English class and a specific Math class, both of which are included in the core curriculum.
But whatever we do, it is absolutely an outrage that we have reached the point where students are being encouraged to leave school by those who should be most involved with helping them to stay in school. But the financial incentive for the schools is now to do exactly that.