THE NEW YORK TIMES
Tucson, Arizona | Story published: 01.18.2004
By Diana Jean Schemo
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - With the rising use of standardized exams
to measure school performance, ninth grade is becoming a watershed moment at
Increasingly, educators say, students at risk of failing pivotal tests
commonly given in the 10th and 11th grades are being held back, sometimes more
than once. Frequently, such students become so discouraged that they drop out.
The impact is evident in a significant nationwide bulge in students enrolled
in ninth grade and a tripling of the attrition between the ninth and 10th
grades over the last 30 years, according to a report by Walter Haney of Boston
"The implications are not only dire for these individual students, but dire
for society at large," Haney said.
The report, "The Education Pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000," compares
school enrollment data by grade from the Education Department's National
Center for Education Statistics. It found that four-year high-school
graduation rates steadily rose in the early 1980s, but declined in the 1990s.
The slide occurred just as President Clinton and Congress ushered in the
school accountability measures strengthened in the No Child Left Behind Act,
and set a national goal of raising the four-year graduation rate to 90 percent
by 2000. Instead, the share of on-time graduations declined by four percentage
points, to 74.4 percent in 2000-01 from 78.4 percent in 1991-92, according to
The report calculates that while 3.4 million students were enrolled in the
eighth grade in the 1996-97 school year, 871,000 of them failed to graduate
from high school in four years. If the graduation rate of the early 1990s had
remained, 135,000 more of those eighth-graders would have graduated.
Haney contends that the overall decline in graduation rates is the result of
two trends: increasing course requirements and growing demands that
high-school students pass specific standardized tests to receive a diploma.
"The benign explanation is that this whole standards and reform movement was
implemented in an ill-conceived manner," Haney said.
John Robert Warren, a professor of education at the University of Minnesota,
said he agreed with the basic findings in Haney's report but not with Haney's
conclusions. Warren contended that falling graduation rates could be due to
changing demographics, not tougher course work or exit exams.
"The two things we really know contribute to dropouts are poverty and recent
Hispanic immigrants," he said. He said the declines also have to do with a
dwindling commitment among politicians and the public "to making sure that
every kid has access to a decent education."