CHICAGO -- In a last-ditch effort to strengthen the No Child Left Behind law, the Bush administration announced yesterday that it will require schools to make sure that low-income and minority students graduate from high school at the same rate as their white and more affluent counterparts.
Schools that fail to meet those goals would face sanctions, according to a wide-ranging plan unveiled by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
Currently, the law requires that schools meet a graduation target for the entire senior class. The new proposal would require that smaller groups of students, broken down by race, income and special-education status, each meet the graduation goals. If any one of the groups fell short, the entire school would be considered failing.
The proposed changes represent the most drastic attempt by the Bush administration to hold high schools accountable for their trouble retaining and educating the nation's poor and minority students. Recent research shows that up to half of all minority students leave high school without earning a diploma.
Spellings, who can make the proposed changes without congressional approval, called the nation's dropout rate a crisis and an economic drag on the country.
She said educators, policy makers and lawmakers can no longer afford to ignore it.
"Over their lifetimes, dropouts from the Class of 2007 will cost our nation more than $300 billion in lost wages, lost taxes and lost productivity," Spellings said at a news conference in Detroit. "Increasing the graduation rates by just 5 percent for male students alone would save us nearly $8 billion dollars each year in crime-related costs."
Spellings' 16-point plan to strengthen No Child Left Behind comes as the Bush administration worries that the law - the president's signature domestic initiative, and the most ambitious school reform in a generation - will be weakened by Congress or the next president.
Under Spellings' new plan, every state must adopt the same measure for calculating the dropout rate, instead of the current hodgepodge of methods, which, in many cases, allow schools to severely undercount dropouts.
In Illinois, for example, the state does not count students who drop out in eighth grade, or those who claim to be transferring to a new high school but never show up there.
Schools that fail to ensure that each subgroup of students meets the new graduation target would be subject to the same escalating sanctions as schools that fall below the test score benchmarks set under the federal reform.
States would have until the 2012-2013 school year to implement the new rules.
Stephanie Banchero writes for the Chicago Tribune.