Calculating dropouts

July 03, 2006

Arecent national study measuring high school graduation rates put Baltimore in next-to-last place among the nation's 50 largest school districts. City school officials have strongly protested the results, but they also acknowledge that the system has a long way to go if more students are going to complete high school successfully.

The study, which was done for Education Week, says that Baltimore's graduation rate in 2002-2003 was 38.5 percent, above Detroit's 21.7 percent and just below New York City's 38.9 percent. It's also way below Baltimore County, which topped all other Maryland school systems that made the list, coming in third with a graduation rate of 81.9 percent. The figures were arrived at through a complicated formula that is as open to challenge as state calculations that the study says result in inflated rates. Nationally, and not surprisingly, the study found that urban, minority and economically segregated districts lagged behind.

By Maryland's calculation, Baltimore's graduation rate in 2003 was 54 percent, increasing to 59 percent in 2005 - a figure that's been widely touted by city officials as a sign of the schools' turnaround. School officials are confident that the graduation trajectory is still going up, even though Baltimore remains below the national average - according to the Education Week study - of nearly 70 percent and the state's reported rate of about 85 percent.

The most accurate way to measure graduates is to track students individually, and such a system is scheduled to go into effect by 2011.

Until then, Baltimore school officials are right to focus more individual attention on students to prevent them from dropping out. During the next school year, teachers and counselors will help more high school students better their chances of passing assessments that are now required for graduation. Middle schools are undergoing reforms designed to strengthen students' skills going into high school. And social workers will intervene more frequently when students need support services.

Studies have found that high school graduates earn more and enjoy longer, healthier lives than those who drop out - and college graduates do much better still. Baltimore is handing out more high school diplomas, but it must ensure that more students gain this minimum ticket to success.

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