A look at Ehrlich's school criticism

Analysis

August 19, 2006|By GADI DECHTER AND LIZ BOWIE | GADI DECHTER AND LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTERS

On Wednesday, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. refused to reappoint three city school board members who had the backing of gubernatorial challenger Mayor Martin O'Malley. It was the latest skirmish in their political battle over control of the city school system.

In a letter to the chairman of the state school board, Ehrlich said that the city schools' "continued failure" necessitated the board's overhaul.

Ehrlich cited the city school board's decision to lower the minimum passing grade for key courses without public input as a reason why he refused to reappoint the board members.

O'Malley said the board's action was not a lowering of standards but merely an alignment of Baltimore's system with the rest of the state.

Here are some other criticisms contained in Ehrlich's letter, followed by an examination of their accuracy: "Six [Baltimore] schools are currently identified as being "Persistently Dangerous" as required by federal law. No other school system in Maryland has a school identified as Persistently Dangerous." Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, states are required to label as "persistently dangerous" schools that issue a high number of suspensions for serious violations, such as violence. State education officials labeled six Baltimore schools persistently dangerous this year, the same number as last year. Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the state with persistently dangerous schools.

Though the listing of these schools is required by law, Maryland -- because it operates under more stringent rules than most states -- is one of only six states that report having any dangerous schools at all.

The Los Angeles and Chicago school districts, for example, haven't labeled any of their schools as dangerous in recent years.

"At all levels (elementary, middle and high) Baltimore City has the lowest attendance rate of all 24 school systems."

Baltimore students miss more classes than students in other districts around the state, according to the 2006 Maryland Report Card, an annual report published by the State Department of Education.

In Baltimore during the 2005-06 school year, the average daily attendance for elementary schools was 94.1 percent, 88.2 percent for middle schools and 83.6 percent for high schools.

Statewide, the average daily attendance was 95.3 in elementary schools, 93.9 in middle schools and 91.6 in high schools.

Average daily attendance is the percentage of students present for at least half an average school day during the school year. "According to a recent report by Education Week, of the 50 largest school systems in the United States, Baltimore City is ranked #49 with a graduation rate of 38.5%. Neighboring Baltimore County is ranked #3 with a graduation rate of 81.9%." Ehrlich rekindled an old dispute with this criticism. The newspaper Education Week is widely respected in education circles. In June, it released a study stating that in 2003 38.9 percent of Baltimore's students graduated four years after they began high school. Only Detroit had a worst graduation rate that year, according to the study.

City school officials disputed the study, maintaining that the city's graduation rate was 54 percent in 2003. They noted that their calculation was based on the model required by the state.

Maryland officials determine graduation rates by taking the number of graduates and dividing it by the number of graduates plus dropouts. (Dropouts, as defined by the state, are students who left one school but are not known to have enrolled in another.)

The Education Week study applied a different formula, calculating the reduction in enrollment from one high-school grade to the next. That method doesn't attempt to account for transfers, or students who leave one school but enter another -- but neither does it rely on a school's self-reported dropout figures. "Baltimore City has the highest percentage of teachers teaching with a Conditional Certificate out of all school systems in Maryland." Conditional certificates are temporary licenses issued by the state to teachers who have not yet satisfied testing, education or work-experience requirements.

In 2006, 9.2 percent of about 80,000 Maryland public school teachers had conditional certificates. Nearly 25 percent of Baltimore's 6,000 teachers were conditionally certified, according to the most recently available state data. "The performance of Baltimore City's students on the High School Assessments in Algebra, English 2, and Biology is the lowest among the state's 24-school system. " Beginning with the Class of 2009, Maryland public high-schoolers must pass four state-issued subject exams in order to graduate.

According to the Maryland Report Card, Baltimore students had the lowest passing rate last year on two, not three, of these exams: algebra and biology.

Somerset County students had the lowest passing rate on the English test, with only 29.7 percent of test-takers qualifying, as opposed to 57.3 percent of students statewide.

Passing rates for Baltimore students in 2005 were: English, 34.6 percent (57.3 percent statewide); biology, 29.3 percent (57.6 percent statewide); government, 41.7 percent (66.4 percent statewide); and algebra, 21.8 percent (53.8 percent statewide). "Baltimore City receives more funding than any other jurisdiction, $9,446 per pupil. By comparison the statewide average is $5,362 per pupil." The governor's figures come from the state's operating budget for the 2007 fiscal year, and they refer only to state money.

City students receive more state funds than students of other districts because of a formula enacted by the legislature several years ago. It gives more money to high-poverty jurisdictions.

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