RAY SUAREZ: For millions of high school students, getting a driver's license is a rite of passage. But, increasingly, states and school districts are linking the chance to get a license with requirements that students stay in school and perform academically.
That's the focus of our story tonight, part of our American Graduate series on the nation's high school dropout crisis.
Hari Sreenivasan reports.
HARI SREENIVASAN: For 17-year-old Chelsea Shamblin, a driver's license means the chance to get to and from her after-school job as a dance instructor more easily, and the freedom to do so without her mother sitting next to her.
CHELSEA SHAMBLIN, 17: Mom, I'm not moving.
Just to finally be able to go out and, you know, not have to worry about certain times and my parents being late picking me up or too early or stuff like that. I kind of make my own rules with certain stuff.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Shamblin and other students here at the Poca High School in West Virginia are taking a driver's education course to learn the rules of the road. But in order to receive a license right now, she has to not get into trouble, attend class regularly, and be on track to graduate before she's 19.
CHELSEA SHAMBLIN: I mean, I like the idea of having the motivation to do good in order to get my license.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And she can thank Patrick Murphy for that. In 1988, while serving in the state legislature, he introduced a bill that made West Virginia the first state in the country to adopt a so-called attend-and-drive law. Murphy says the law was an attempt to keep students in school longer at a time when the state was dealing with a serious dropout problem and a lack of funds.
PATRICK MURPHY, Former West Virginia Delegate: We were probably losing a third of our students. We found out -- in this issue, we found that some students were dropping out of school in order to get a job to keep the car on the road.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Poca's principal, Vic Donalson, says many of his students really want the independence a driver's license can bring and that he's seen the law work firsthand.
VIC DONALSON, principal, Poca High School: We have had several students that have been borderline students, and I feel just because of the current policy, it's either kept them in school or it's given them an incentive to do better because, you know, kids love to drive.
PATRICK MURPHY: For this one niche of kids, I think we were right on target, but it -- we had other groups that it impacted.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And that's still true today. The law doesn't always impact students who consider dropping out.
ASHLEY CYRUS, student: I had missed too much school. And then my grades were really low. And you have to pass like four -- four classes.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Bad attendance and bad grades meant Poca High School's Ashley Cyrus didn't get her driver's license. But she says the policy had nothing to do with why she's staying in school.
ASHLEY CYRUS: I'm going to just make it through since I don't have that much longer to go to.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The dropout rate in West Virginia has fallen some over the years, but no one has shown this law was the cause. Despite that, 21 states have followed West Virginia's lead in adopting similar legislation, and the policies vary from state to state.
For example, in Arkansas, students must comply with attendance policies and maintain a 2.0 grade average in order to stay eligible to drive, while, in Mississippi, teenagers who want to drive must simply show proof of enrollment.
Matthew Lenard says there is no proof these policies work. He studied the issue for the Southern Regional Education Board.
MATTHEW LENARD, former policy analyst, Southern Regional Education Board: It's a relatively low-cost prescription for keeping kids in school or bringing them back. The driver's license is a very important status symbol for teenagers. It appeals to parents. It appeals to students.
And if you threaten to take that away, it can be seen as a very effective policy on paper. But the question is, does the data support it? As far as we can tell, it doesn't.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Fifteen-year-old Jordan Baker of Nashville, Tennessee, just passed his driving test. In order to get his learner's permit, he had to prove he regularly attended school and passed at least three subjects. But he's not convinced the state's law is making a difference.
JORDAN BAKER, student: I think if they made the students aware that in order need to get their driver's license, they need to get good grades or graduate, then I think that would help them focus more on their grades and give them more of a goal.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But, right now, do you -- that connection's not there?
JORDAN BAKER: I don't think they have made the students aware of that, that that law even exists.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Across town at Maplewood High School, it's part of secretary Cordelia Howard's job to make sure her students know about the law.
CORDELIA HOWARD, secretary, Maplewood High School: When a student comes through that door and they say, I want my permit, so I'm going to take my driver's test, I say, let me have your name. I say, check back with me during lunchtime. I'm going to pull your attendance and your grades.
If they are up to par, then I will give you the permit. If you're on this five-plus list that we print out for attendance, that knocks you out. You cannot get a permit. You have to wait.
HARI SREENIVASAN: At Maplewood, it's a group effort to get student drivers on the road if they comply with the rules.
Alysia Falls is one of those students
ALYSIA FALLS, student: I mean, teachers want to see you drive just as much as students want to drive. So it gets them good enough to, you know, want to push them get their grades up.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Nashville's director of schools, Jesse Register, believes the state's attend-and-drive law has been useful.
How successful has the link been between tying driver's licenses to academic programs?
JESSE REGISTER, Metro Nashville Public Schools: I think it's a motivator. I don't have data that I can show. I don't have statistics that I can show. But I certainly think it's important for young people to -- they want to get their driver's licenses. And I think it's certainly an incentive in that regard.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But enforcement of these laws is not easy and it depends on whether truancy and academic information gets to motor vehicle departments in a timely manner.
Again, Matthew Lenard.
MATTHEW LENARD: A lot of states sit on this data. Some states don't report it to the Department of Motor Vehicles at all. So you have to bridge that gap quickly in order to make the policy effective.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Even if those problems are fixed, Lenard believes that until attend-and-drive is proven to work, states shouldn't expect these rules to have much impact on America's complicated dropout problem.
MATTHEW LENARD: You need to help the individual student. You have to help their families. You have to help the community and you have to make sure the school is doing what it needs to do, both with respect to high-quality teachers and great leaders.
And until you manage to address all parts of that pie, driver's license is probably only going to contribute a little bit to that, if it's an effective policy at all.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And now even the man who authored the first attend-and-drive law acknowledges its limitations.
PATRICK MURPHY: I knew at the time when we were doing this that we were trying to get by on the cheap in order to save money, because we didn't have the money. And we did impact the dropout rate, but we didn't solve the problem.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Three states, Iowa, Minnesota and New York, have attend-and-drive bills under consideration.
GWEN IFILL: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Also, do you think tying driver's licenses to academic performance works? Tell us on our website.