ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Obama also used his State of the Union message to advance his interest that more kids actually get to college. He called on states to require students to stay in school until they graduate or until they turn 18.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When students don't walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma.

SIEGEL: The White House cited studies that showed that raising the compulsory schooling age helps prevent kids from leaving school.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports on how much of this is true and how much of it may be wishful thinking.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: For Paul Leather, New Hampshire's deputy commissioner of education, President Obama's call is the right call.

PAUL LEATHER: Well, what it does is it sets the moral imperative so that students and parents and educators become committed to the idea that each student will in fact graduate.

SANCHEZ: New Hampshire recently became one of only 21 states that require kids to stay in school until 18. Leather says it did so after looking at the research.

LEATHER: What we found both in national and international research is that when you raise the compulsory age of education, the graduation and retention rates will in fact increase.

SANCHEZ: So, yes, there's evidence kids might stay in school a little longer. But do these laws actually lower the dropout rate? Not really, says Russell Rumberger, professor of education at U.C. Santa Barbara and author of the book "Dropping Out." Requiring kids to stay in school until they're 18 sounds like good policy, says Rumberger, but it doesn't have the impact people think.

RUSSELL RUMBERGER: You can't just look at the graduation rates or dropout rates by a state and relate it to its compulsory schooling age and say, aha, there's a direct connection.

SANCHEZ: Rumberger says all you have to do is look at the 21 states where the compulsory schooling age is already 18. In Nevada, the dropout rate is 58 percent; Louisiana, 43 percent; California, 37 percent. The figures in the other 18 states aren't much better. And then, there are states like Kentucky, where kids can leave school as early as 16. That's been the law since 1934. And yet, Kentucky has in recent years dramatically lowered its dropout rate by focusing on the causes. Lisa Gross is with the Kentucky Department of Education.

LISA GROSS: The reason kids drop out in Kentucky - and I suspect that this is the case nationwide - is not because they're falling behind, it's because they don't see a connection between what they're learning in high school and what their lives are going to be like as adults.

SANCHEZ: Gross says Kentucky has worked really hard to provide students multiple pathways to graduation. It has created a support system and gotten parents involved. Although holding on to some kids is not cheap or easy, says Gross.

GROSS: If you force children to stay in school when they don't want to be there, schools spend a lot of time addressing discipline problems and other issues that pop up.

SANCHEZ: Still, Gross says President Obama's remarks were important. Russell Rumberger agrees, as long as people don't come away with the expectation that raising the compulsory age to 18 is going to solve the nation's dropout crisis.

RUMBERGER: I don't want to discount it. It's still - it's an important thing to do in the right direction. But by itself, it's probably not going to make a big improvement.

SANCHEZ: Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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