Maryland students earned diplomas last year at the highest rate in recent history, according to data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education, which also unveiled a new system of tracking graduates and dropouts.
Under the new "cohort" system, which follows students from ninth grade until they graduate, 83 percent of those who started high school in 2007-2008 graduated in 2011, up from 82 percent in 2010. Those who completed high school in five years also rose, from 85 percent to 86 percent.
The state's dropout rate fell slightly, from 12 percent to 11 percent.
"The data offer good news, but there remain too many students who leave our classrooms prior to graduation," state Superintendent Lillian M. Lowery said in a release. "That must continue to change."
The data for the most recent school year will be available early next year, said Carolyn M. Wood, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment. Officials were still tabulating the results for students who graduated after completing summer work.
The state also released High School Assessment scores for the Class of 2012, and said that only one student failed to graduate because he did not meet that requirement.
In a news conference Wednesday, Baltimore city schools CEO Andrés Alonso endorsed the state's new cohort calculations as "real numbers," though they show a less rosy picture for the city than the state's former formula.
Alonso pointed out that in raw numbers the system was still graduating and holding on to more students than before he arrived. "I see it as the real numbers showing us a true picture," he said.
Of the students who entered ninth grade when Alonso arrived in the 2007-2008 school year, 66 percent graduated in 2011, while 71 percent completed high school in five years. The most recent year shows an improvement from the Class of 2010, of which about 62 percent who started high school in fall 2006 completed in four years and 67 percent completed in five.
The state's former formula tallied the graduation rate at 72 percent and dropout rate at 4.2 percent last year.
He attributed the system's graduation and dropout numbers to the district's emphasis on re-engaging students — a trademark of his administration.
"It's work that we need to have enormous pride about," he said, "but definitely our work moving forward."
Alonso said the system's 17 percent dropout rate in 2011 "is both a signal of the unbelievably hard work we still have to do" and also "the very worthy outcome for extraordinary effort."
In Baltimore County, new schools Superintendent Dallas Dance praised the slight improvements of the graduating Class of 2011 when compared with the class of 2010, but emphasized they were not enough.
County officials said that the proportion of students graduating in four years climbed from 81 percent for the Class of 2010 to 82 percent for the Class of 2011. The county's dropout rate also fell slightly, from 14 percent in 2010 to 13 percent in 2011.
"While we applaud improvements in our graduation and dropout rates, they are still not where we want them, and we will not be satisfied until all of our students are graduating on time with the college- and career-readiness skills needed to be productive citizens," Dance said in a statement.
Anne Arundel County's four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2011 — which includes seniors at comprehensive, evening and special schools — was 83.7 percent, up from 82.8 percent the previous year. The school system's five-year graduation rate was 86.1 percent, up from 85.6 percent.
"These results are tangible proof of the incredible work that goes on in our high schools — and all of our schools, for that matter — every single day," Superintendent Kevin Maxwell said in a prepared statement.
In Howard County, the graduation rate for the Class of 2011 was 90.6 percent, up from 89.5 percent. The dropout rate was 5.9 percent, down from 7.2 percent the previous year.
Howard officials noted that the graduation rates among African-American students (80.9 percent) and Hispanic students (78.8) exceeded the state averages.
"Our reform efforts are focused on teaching students to succeed in tomorrow's world through a relevant, rigorous curriculum and personalized learning," said new Superintendent Renee A. Foose. "The graduation rate is one measure that helps us to understand the extent to which we are fulfilling this promise."
In other high school data, the percentage of Maryland students who successfully completed High School Assessment exams, required for graduation, also rose slightly this year. About 90 percent of students passed the exams in algebra/data analysis, biology and English to meet graduation requirements, up from 85 percent last year.
This past year, the government exam was eliminated, but the Maryland General Assembly ordered that it be restored as a graduation requirement for students entering ninth grade in 2013.
In the 2011 school year, about 9 percent of students met requirements by completing a project-based alternative, called "bridge projects," and this year, roughly 10 percent of students used that alternative. Some students received waivers from the test to be able to graduate.
Around the Baltimore region, most school districts performed on-par or exceeded the state's pass rates, with the exception of Baltimore City, which had 67 percent passing the tests. In Anne Arundel County, 94 percent of students passed the exams; in Baltimore County, 91 percent did; and in Howard, Carroll and Harford counties, at least 95 percent did.
Anne Arundel, Howard, Carroll and Harford had roughly 5 percent of students complete projects. Baltimore County had slightly more with 9 percent; and in Baltimore City, 32 percent met the high school requirement via a bridge project.
Baltimore City also released its Advanced Placement and SAT scores for 2012, which other districts released in September. The system's average SAT score fell by about 30 points in 2012. And while 187 more students took the AP tests, only 109 more passed.
At the state school meeting at which the data were presented, board members questioned the methods used to track students who leave school.
Robert Murphy, who directs the state's dropout prevention program, explained that the reasons students left school were classified as "lack of interest," "whereabouts unknown" or "academic."
Board member Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks said the "whereabouts unknown" category "really means nobody cares." Teachers and administrators must do more to track down such students, he said.
"Ultimately, we see these individuals again," said Walks. "We see them on the streets. We see them on the corners. We see them in prison."
Lowery said Murphy and his team were working to delve further into dropout data. When officials have a better sense of the reasons students leave school, they will be better equipped to prevent them from dropping out, she said.
Although the overall dropout rate decreased slightly, the rate increased substantially for Hispanic and American Indian students. Fewer special education students dropped out of school, but the percentage of poor students and non-English speakers who dropped out increased.
Baltimore Sun reporter Joe Burris contributed to this article.
By the numbers
Number of Maryland students who passed all three HSA tests: 45,019
Number who passed at least one test and completed a "bridge" project: 7,930
Number who completed "bridge" projects: 5,669
Number who received waiver: 123
Total diplomas: 58,792
Source: Maryland State Department of EducationCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun