Greater expectations

August 06, 2007

With the critical need for more workers to have at least a high school diploma, are states doing enough to increase the number of students who graduate from high school? A nonprofit group that focuses on education equity issues says no and rightly urges states and the federal government to devote more resources to beefing up high school curriculums and intervening more aggressively to improve the lowest-performing schools, particularly those that serve low-income and minority students.

Those recommendations are certainly worthy - but other investments are needed as well.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, states set target graduation rates until 2014, when nearly all students are supposed to be at grade level in reading and math. When the Education Trust, a Washington-based group, examined the states' projections, it found many to be way too low. For example, the report shows Nevada's goal for the Class of 2006 at a mere 50 percent and "any progress" as the annual improvement target.

While the report notes Maryland's goal for the Class of 2006 was 83.24 percent, the state calculates that 85 percent graduated. By 2014, Maryland has promised to get to 90 percent, a seemingly modest improvement for a state that boasts a highly educated workforce and a large proportion of jobs that require high-level skills. State education officials insist the target is realistic, considering increased family mobility as well as personal obstacles some students have to overcome.

A key priority is to eliminate the gaps that are leaving African-American and disabled students about 7 points below the overall graduation average. The State Education Department has pushed local districts to use its voluntary curriculum, which is meant to make courses progress logically from one grade to the next, particularly at critical transition points such as from fifth to sixth grade and eighth to ninth grade.

Some school districts are also offering longer school days and after-school programs during the academic year, and more summer learning programs when school is not in session, to keep at-risk students from falling behind.

More of these kinds of programs are sorely needed, especially as Maryland's requirement that students pass high school assessments as a condition of graduation kicks in fully with the Class of 2009. All the more reason for Maryland to be even more aggressive in ensuring that its graduation target can be reached - and exceeded.

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