05/23/2012 12:31 pm ET Updated Jul 23, 2012

Raising Expectations -- and the Dropout Age -- in Maryland

Coauthored by John Bridgeland and Betty Morgan

One in five students in Maryland does not graduate from high school on time. In some high schools, the rate is closer to one in two. The dropout crisis in Maryland comes at tremendous costs to individuals, taxpayers, and the state. If Maryland reached the national graduation goal of 90 percent, they would add an estimated $115 million in annual earnings, $17 million in annual state tax revenues, and $133 million in the Gross State Product each year to the state economy.

Yet, students in Maryland have been allowed to sign out of school on their 16th birthday. In focus groups in Baltimore, we heard students talk about how they dropped out of school, saying that the State said it was okay. Now that is about to change. Governor O'Malley is scheduled to sign important legislation raising expectations for the students in his state, no longer allowing them to drop out before they turn 18, or graduate from high school.

As explained in the January 2012 post "Raising the Dropout Age," there are no silver bullets to solve the dropout crisis and blunt instruments often go too far. Updates to compulsory school-age laws are not a single-stop solution. But they are an important strategic, economic and symbolic step that states can take. Coupled with other proven reforms and supports, raising the compulsory school-age law is a powerful tool that can help stem the dropout tide.

We have seen the power of high expectations, in Maryland and across the county. In 2000, the Washington County Public Schools (WCPS) in Western Maryland had the second highest dropout rate in the state. By 2011, it had increased its high school graduation rate by nearly 15 percentage points, out-performing the state by more than 10 percentage points.

Seventeen states still allow their students to drop out at 16. Of these, ten have recently introduced legislation to update their laws. These 17 states should follow the lead of Governor O'Malley and other champions of high-quality education in Maryland. These states should raise expectations for their students while supporting educational systems that match the needs of today's economy.

John Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises and author of The Case for Reform: Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age, The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic. Dr. Elizabeth "Betty" Molina Morgan is a retired Maryland Superintendent and now Chief Education Advisor to Grad Nation, an initiative of America's Promise Alliance, founded in 1997 by General Colin Powell.