More Baltimore students are graduating, but that doesn't mean they're educated

March 30, 2011

I read Monday's commentary on Baltimore's graduation rate with great interest ("City's graduation rates: a success story still being written," March 28). While I applaud any effort or initiative that increases graduation rates, I believe that it is dangerous to celebrate gains in this area without also measuring how academically prepared high school graduates actually are.

I have been an adjunct in the English department at a local community college since September 2009 and have taught Basic Writing I, Basic Writing II, English Composition and Writing About Literature. I teach because I love kids, love words and love writing. However, I continue to be appalled at the lack of academic ability demonstrated by my students, most of whom are presumably high school graduates.

The Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum requires a 6th grade student to be able to write and identify a thesis statement and topic sentences, yet most of my Community College of Baltimore County students have never heard of these terms, nor can they effectively use them in writing.

For the current semester, my college is running 63 sessions, 20 students each, of Basic Writing I and Basic Writing II. These are remedial classes for the 1,260 students who could not test into English Composition. Additionally, a recent study completed at my college indicates that 20 percent of students in Basic Writing I cannot even read or write at a sixth grade level.

I realize that there are high performers, average performers and low performers in any academic setting, but I expect all students to have some understanding of a core curriculum. How can students who cannot read or write at a 6th grade level graduate from middle school, much less high school?

This madness has to stop somewhere. In any semester where I've taught Basic Writing I or Basic Writing II, I have actually had to teach a lesson on the use of "there," "their," and "they're." On a 20-question worksheet, the highest number of correct answers any student has had was 10. How can a student who lacks these basics hope to be successful in the future, and how can a student who lacks these basics graduate from high school?

Each semester, I use the state of education as an essay topic. This semester, the prompt was "One in four fails the Army entrance exam. Who is to blame that American students are so academically unprepared?" Students, of course, blame teachers, but this isn't about blame. This is about voicing my concerns about celebrating graduation rates that may be meaningless, asking what can be done, and asking who needs to do it.

Each semester, I contemplate sending a bundle of diagnostic essays to Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston, Baltimore Schools CEO Andrés Alonso, principals from all of the area high schools, Gov. Martin O'Malley, and President Obama. I want each of them to read these essays and then dare tell me that our education system works or that graduating from high school holds the same value that it used to. I know that for the students I encounter, their high school graduation means very little in real academic terms. They were robbed of an education, and they don't even know it.

Lisa A. Mack

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