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School Dropouts Level Off, Bennett Says

February 21, 1986|LOU FINTOR | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Dropout rates and achievement test scores have "bottomed out" and public schools are improving, without increased federal spending on education, teacher salaries or poverty programs, Education Secretary William J. Bennett said Thursday.

Indeed, there is "tangible evidence that the movement to raise academic standards and restore discipline is showing dramatic results," Bennett said in releasing the department's third annual state-by-state "report card" of student performance, educational resources and population characteristics.

Survey Criticized

Educators quickly criticized the survey, saying it did not take enough factors into account and relied too heavily on standardized national test scores as indicators of academic performance.

"It makes no sense to use a faulty thermometer to measure the nation's educational health," said John Weiss, executive director of the Massachusetts-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

In June, 1983, in an effort to stem falling test scores and rising dropout rates, President Reagan challenged each state to raise graduation levels to 90% by 1990. According to the survey, 18 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia met their interim goals for 1985.

The "report card" ranks and compares educational progress in each state and the District of Columbia using test scores, dropout rates, teacher salaries, class size, spending and enrollment characteristics.

Highlights show:

--Minnesota had the lowest dropout rate, 10.7%, while the District of Columbia had the highest, 44.8%. California ranked 44th, with a dropout rate of 36.8%. The rate is calculated by comparing the number of graduating high school seniors with the number of freshmen four years earlier.

--Alaska led the nation with average teacher salaries of $39,751, while California was fifth with $27,410--both increases over last year. Mississippi was last with an average of $15,971.

--New Hampshire students ranked first among the 22 states using the Scholastic Aptitude Test, while California was ninth and South Carolina was last. In terms of improved scores, the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Utah, Alabama and Kentucky were among the leaders.

--Mississippi schools received the highest ratio of federal educational subsidies in 1984, obtaining 16.1% of its total funding from the federal government; California ranked 16th, 8.3%, and Wyoming took the least money, 2.6%.

--California ranked eighth-highest in minority enrollment, with 42.9%; sixth in per-capita income, $14,487, and 22nd in the number of poverty-level schoolchildren, 14.2%.

'It's How They Spend It'

Bennett dismissed the idea that increased spending on educational programs helped fuel the rise in performance in certain states, saying that the findings indicate that "it's not how much they spend, but it's how they spend it."

Officials in California, meanwhile, are "taking strong exception" to portions of the survey and dispute the state's dropout statistics in particular.

"The statewide dropout average is about 29%. We've never had a figure that high (the reported 36%). That figure definitely doesn't jibe with the numbers we're working with," said spokeswoman Susie Lange of the state Department of Education.

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