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News Opinion Editorial

Progress for city schools

The most recent data on high school graduation and dropout rates from the Maryland State Department of Education suggest that while Baltimore City still lags behind other jurisdictions, it is making solid progress in its school reform effort. Graduation rates have risen and dropout rates have fallen. Baltimore isn't out of the woods yet, but the numbers suggest that the reforms put into place by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso starting in 2007 are beginning to show results.

The latest data are the first produced under the state's new method of calculating graduation and dropout rates, which tracks the academic progress of individual students in greater detail than ever before. The so-called longitudinal data system was put into place so the state could qualify for a $250 million federal award in the Obama administration's 2010 Race to the Top competition, and it has given school officials a far more granular view of the factors driving students' academic success or failure, as well as vital data that enable them to intervene to achieve better outcomes.

Instead of simply counting how many students drop out during a given year and dividing that by the number who remain, for example, the new method starts with the entire cohort of students entering ninth grade each year and then counts how many graduate four or five years later. The cohort rate is a truer, more complete picture of students' progress because it follows individual students throughout their high school careers and allows school districts to analyze their performance grade by grade.

Using the new measure, the four-year graduation rate for students entering ninth grade in 2007 rose over those who started ninth grade the previous year, increasing from 61.5 percent to 66.7 percent. That suggests that the reforms begun under Mr. Alonso that year had an immediate impact. When the cohort of students who graduate in five years is taken into account, the rate increases to a little more than 70 percent overall.

Statewide, the four-year graduation rate was 83 percent, and the five-year rate was 86 percent.

Baltimore's dropout rate fell by 30 percent for students who entered ninth grade in 2007, compared to their counterparts a year earlier. That suggests that Mr. Alonso's insistence that teachers and principals reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions as a means of disciplining students not only cut the overall number of suspensions that year but paid off over the long term in more graduates receiving a diploma. After five years, more than 80 percent of students who entered ninth grade in 2007 either graduated or were still in school working toward diplomas.

The new method also allows school officials to mine important data about student progress from one grade to the next. For instance, the MSDE figures show that the main driver in the declining dropout rate between the 2007 and 2008 cohorts was the decrease in dropouts that occurred in grades nine and 10. This suggests Baltimore's reforms are succeeding in holding onto more students during the difficult middle-to-high school transition years, when dropout rates peak.

Tracking individual students' progress also allows school officials to compare graduation and dropout rates to test scores on standardized tests. Although educators have long suspected a relationship between test scores and graduation rates, the latest figures clearly show a strong correlation between eighth-grade reading and math proficiency on the Maryland State Assessments and high school graduation rates four and five years later. For example, more than 86 percent of students who score proficient or better on the math exam go on to graduate, as do 80 percent of those who score proficient or better in reading. Conversely, students who score below proficient in eighth-grade math are three times more likely to drop out, and they are twice as likely to drop out if they score less than proficient in reading.

These results suggest that Baltimore City must target more resources toward early and elementary education so that students arrive in the classroom prepared for the challenges they will encounter during their middle and high school years. If kids aren't performing at grade level when they leave middle school, they almost certainly will continue to struggle in high school. But the key to turning that around lies in early education experiences that begin in pre-kindergarten and extend throughout the K-8 curriculum. The new data will help educators target interventions — such as individualized and small-group instruction or more reading and math specialists — to the schools where they are most needed.

The improvements in Baltimore's graduation rates are nowhere near enough to bring it on par with other jurisdictions, but they aren't meaningless. They reflect hundreds of individual students each year whose prospects for going to college or entering the work world are markedly improved by having a high school diploma. The city appears to have established a momentum for change. Now it must work aggressively to keep it up.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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