updated 2/23/2005 5:05:45 PM ET 2005-02-23T22:05:45

With dropout rates rising, governors nationwide are being asked to lead a high school overhaul that demands more skills of students and help from colleges.

The call for action, outlined this week by leaders of an upcoming national summit on high schools, would change everything from core course requirements to state graduation standards.

It came as the Educational Testing Service reported Tuesday that high school completion rates dropped nationally from 1990 to 2000, with about one third of students failing to graduate. It is the latest in a string of sobering assessments of high school performance.

“Students can make it to the top of the K-12 ladder, only to find that they still can’t reach the bottom rung of success for the rest of their lives,” said Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, co-chairman of Achieve, a group formed by governors to help states raise academic standards.

“In order to close this gap,” Taft said at a news conference Tuesday, “we must pursue a fundamental redesign of a sacred institution — the American high school.”

Weekend conference
Governors from virtually all 50 states and five U.S. territories are expected to be in Washington on Saturday and Sunday for a summit hosted by Achieve and the National Governors Association. It is the fifth governors’ education summit, but the first one on high schools.

“We have this moment in time, where there is a growing understanding that high school redesign and high school reform must be a national agenda item,” said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, chairman of the governors association and a leader of this weekend’s meeting.

Summit leaders released their goals in advance of the event in hopes of building attention and momentum. Given the scope of the policy changes they want, and the fact that each state decides what to demand of students, organizers know they have a sales job to do.

It will start with the governors themselves — state chiefs who can help coordinate the efforts and missions of their states’ overlapping education agencies. The goal is to unite governors, business executives and school leaders around a plan in each state to:

  • Demand tougher courses, and align graduation requirements with what’s expected in college and the workplace. As one example, each state would need to require four years of rigorous English and math classes.
  • Redesign high school to provide all students with more choices and support. States would give priority to low-performing schools and provide more college-level courses.
  • Give all students excellent teachers and principals, particularly by offering incentives to draw top instructors toward the neediest schools.
  • Set clear, measurable goals for high schools and colleges, and vastly improve data collection and coordination between secondary schools and higher education.
  • Streamline education leadership. In most states, K-12 schools and postsecondary schools have separate governing boards and budgets, often contributing to competition over money.

Governors have become increasingly vocal about education reform, challenged to respond to unprecedented federal demands and complaints from employers. Arthur Ryan, chairman and CEO of Prudential Financial, said business leaders aren’t happy with the pace of change.

“Improving one high school at a time or one state at a time simply isn’t fast enough,” said Ryan, co-chairman of Achieve.

The high school graduation rate, meanwhile, remains the subject of debate. The new report by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service shows that the high school completion rate was 70 percent in 2000, down from 72 percent in 1990. It dropped in all but seven states.

“This is a story of losing ground,” said Paul Barton, the ETS researcher who wrote the report. “At the same time that the dropout rate is increasing and out-of-school education and training opportunities are dwindling, the economic status of young dropouts has been in a free fall since the late 1970s.”

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