Fixing Washington’s unacceptably high dropout rate is one of the most cost-effective education reforms this state can make.

Getting young people into college or careers means first keeping them in high school. Yet, in the 2010-11 school year, 14,000 students statewide left school before graduating.

The good news is we do not have to travel far to find useful models for turning this problem around.

The early-warning approach by the Spokane School District is worth watching. Easier access to student academic and behavioral records allows teachers and administrators to notice more quickly which students are struggling and at risk of dropping out.

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Such early-warning systems are key to lowering the dropout rate. National studies show — and analysis of 7,000 Spokane students confirmed — nearly half of all dropouts could have been identified before high school. The key indicators schools were losing these students were their high rates of absences, discipline problems and poor academic performance.

This makes sense. Young people do not wake up one morning suddenly deciding to give up on education. It is a painful decision more than often reached after years of frustrating academic or emotional struggle. It is much more difficult to retrieve students than to prevent them from dropping out in the first place.

Another smart example can be found in the Everett School District, which took its graduation rate to 84 percent two years ago. It had hovered around 53 percent.

The goal is to keep students in school and on track to graduate. Washington’s high-school graduation rate is 76 percent, tied at 32nd place with California, Utah and West Virginia. This state must get its graduation rate to 80 percent or above, for starters. It can be done. Iowa graduates 88 percent of its high-school students.

Seattle is working to boost graduation rates from the current 68 percent to 80 percent by 2013. Assistance for school districts is forthcoming from the Obama administration, which is tracking 2,000 schools nationwide with the highest dropout rates.