Studies warning of rising dropout rates in Canada's two most populous provinces are ringing alarm bells among some education experts.
The latest Quebec statistics and a major study in Ontario earlier this year suggest more teenagers are leaving school, bucking long-term trends in Canada toward rising graduation rates.
"These are warning bells, something you would definitely have to watch out for," said Frank Peters, an education policy expert who specializes in the dropout phenomenon.
"The important thing is to ask yourself, 'Why?' A whole pile of factors can cause this kind of change and it's important to take a closer look at these things."
Quebec's 2004 roundup of educational statistics indicates a steady rise in the number of students who are leaving high school without a diploma since 1998.
About 66% of students who should have graduated received diplomas in 2003, compared to 74% in 1998.
The trend matches a major Ontario study published earlier this year that warned of an upcoming spike in dropout rates, from about 20% to 25%.
While Canadian schools have dramatically reduced dropout rates over the past 30 years, Peters, a professor at the University of Alberta, said the numbers still fluctuate with the availability of jobs and changes to the way schools teach and test children.
In Quebec, experts say the decline in graduates may be tied to tougher French tests teenagers must pass to get a diploma.
"Everyone wants their children to speak and write better French but we raised the standards without boosting the resources to help them jump over the bar," said Jocelyn Berthelot, an educational researcher with a Quebec labour group who has examined the Quebec statistics.
In Ontario, experts have suggested a revamped curriculum and literacy tests are too tough for many students.
Examine mandatory tests
Charles Ungerleider, the author of Failing Our Kids: How We Are Ruining Our Public Schools, said the two provinces should examine mandatory tests to make sure their standards are relevant.
"There is a lot of pressure on politicians to demonstrate their school system is rigorous, really delivering," said Ungerleider, a professor at the University of British Columbia.
"We see that in Ontario, we see that in Quebec. One of the ways they can see to be fulfilling it is to impose these assessments.
"Exams are only one part of the school experience. There has to be a balance," Ungerleider says.
Quebec is reviewing its education system and the government has pledged an extra $45 million for measures to reduce dropout rates, including programs to help with homework.
Ontario put $39 million extra toward similar measures this year.
While Canadian schools are facing many problems, Ungerleider said retaining students has not been among them in recent years.
"Overall in the last 25 years, the number of early school leavers has declined substantially," he said.
"Canadian education has improved dramatically.
We've got to look into this very carefully. It's definitely worth paying attention to."
Peters said the improved Canadian economy has created jobs for young adults with little education.
In Alberta, where dropout rates have remained consistently low, Peters said smaller communities close to the oil patch have difficulty keeping kids in school.
"If you can go work on an oil rig and make $60,000 or $70,000 a year with a Grade 10 or 11 education, it's very alluring, very seductive," Peters said.
"It's only when you're out there that you're realize you're stuck. You have few other opportunities. Dropout rates always go up when the economy is good. I would guess it's the same thing in parts of Ontario and Quebec where the economy is good."
Numbers crunched by Statistics Canada indicate about 90% of students will eventually get their diplomas by age 35. Peters said it's important education systems are flexible enough to allow students to return.
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