Baltimore raised graduation rate by lowering the bar

March 30, 2011

Having taught in Baltimore City for 31 years, including 22 years at Western High School — and having recently retired — I feel a few points need be addressed regarding the op-ed column, "Baltimore's graduation rate: a success story still being written" (March 28).

Much has been made recently of the stunning improvement in graduation rates in Baltimore City; very little has been made of some of the reasons. For years at my old school, roughly 20 or 25 seniors (about 10 percent) would not fulfill their graduation requirements (usually failing too many courses their last year), and would be denied a diploma. The major reasons for their lack of graduating would be academic indifference, along with horrible work habits and poor attendance. With the arrival of the New Yorkers (Carmen Russo, Frank DiStefano and later Andrés Alonso) to lead our school system about six or seven years ago, our school would have to submit a list to North Avenue of the names of the 20 or 25 seniors who were not going to graduate.

Administrators at central headquarters would get back to us, and we were told that number was not acceptable — it needed to be reduced to seven or eight. So the school would dutifully pare the list down to an "acceptable level" by allowing many unworthy students to graduate. After a few years of constantly being told the number of failures is too high, the school adapted and policed itself, submitting lower numbers that would be acceptable to North Avenue.

There were also other incentives for schools to limit the number of students not graduating — a higher graduation rate would make the school look better, and would reflect positively on the school's own report card. That is clearly one of the major reasons why graduation rates have skyrocketed — schools were told how many students had to graduate.

The major problem with this scenario is that students quickly realized that the burden of graduation is no longer on them but is on the schools. That shift of responsibility results in students who are less serious. It also demonstrates why the increase in graduation rates has not resulted in higher SAT scores, nor has it increased the readiness level of Baltimore City graduates for college-level work. It also explains why the large majority of high school graduates in the city still must take remedial courses, in English and especially math, in their first year of college.

The authors also mention how the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses has doubled, and the number of students earning passing grades has increased 25 percent. Not mentioned is that the large majority of students earning those grades come from a few "elite" schools in the city — those same city-wide schools that have been under attack in the past five or 10 years by North Avenue. Rather than being allowed to keep a college-preparatory curriculum that has been successful for decades, the "elite" schools were forced to align their curriculums (and approaches) to the district.

Finally, the authors point out how Maryland is one of the few states that tracks students who miss at least 20 days of school a year (the definition of chronic absenteeism). Yet, many of the students that North Avenue forced schools to graduate were indeed not just students who had chronic absenteeism but students who were absent 50 or 60 days per year! And from talking to teachers from other schools throughout the city, this still is the case. And again, the reason that many students are absent 50 or more days per year is because it has become acceptable. The city, and especially the students, deserve better. The bar truly needs to be raised.

Paul L. Evans, Baltimore

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