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Maryland graduating more students in four years

The graduation rate at Maryland public high schools reached 87 percent last spring, capping a five-year climb to the highest rate of seniors earning their diplomas in state history, according to data released Friday.

African-Americans have made steady progress in graduation rates and are closing the gap with white students. Statewide, the black student graduation rate rose from 76 percent in 2010 to 82.3 percent last spring. In Baltimore County, the percentage of black students who donned caps and gowns last May is nearly the same as for whites.

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Underneath the generally positive trends, however, lurked trouble spots. Four school districts in the state, including Montgomery County and Baltimore City, saw slight dips in their graduation rates.

After a decade of improvement, Baltimore's graduation rate stalled, said Linda Chen, the city's chief academic officer, because of a new Common Core curriculum that raised standards significantly for students.

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"It is harder to get through high school than it was before," she said.

Still, the graduation rates in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties increased to 88 percent, while reaching 90 percent in Harford County. In Howard County the rate rose to 93 percent, up less than a percentage point. Carroll County had the state's highest graduation rate, with 96 percent of seniors leaving high school in four years.

The rises in graduation rates come just before the state school board plans to decide what state tests students must pass to graduate from high school in the coming years.

State officials are deeply concerned by the drop in graduation rates for students learning English as a second language. The graduation rate for students learning English dropped from 54 percent in 2014 to 49.3 percent last spring, state statistics show.

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Those students, mostly first- and second-generation immigrants, are arriving in the state in greater numbers. They are often older and have had less formal education.

Finding another approach to educating immigrants must be a priority, said Jack Smith, the interim state superintendent of schools.

"We have to rethink this for our students," he said. "It is just not fair to put someone in regular classes who is 16 and has never been to school or has interrupted education."

A state task force seeking ways to improve education outcomes for immigrant students will present recommendations to the state school board in the coming months, Smith said.

School board member James Gates said he hoped the state would encourage school systems to provide better opportunities for immigrant students to get career technology education, so they could be prepared for jobs.

Schools should have different strategies for students, depending on when they enter the system, Smith said. A 5-year-old who enters school not speaking English can catch up to his peers more easily than a 17-year-old who arrives without much education, he said.

Baltimore, which has invested more resources to help newly arrived students, saw gains in its graduation rate for such students. The city's graduation rate for students learning English as a second language is 13 percentage points higher than the state average.

"That is our fastest-growing group of students, and we have some terrific teachers who are doing good work," Chen said. "I think we have been focusing more on the supports that they need."

Baltimore County, however, saw its graduation rate for immigrant students drop from 56 percent to 48 percent, the lowest in at least five years.

Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance has put more money in the budget to hire teachers for students learning English and said he will place them in high schools with the most need, particularly Lansdowne, Owings Mills and Parkville.

"I think the biggest concern is, how do we make sure we build relationships with our families so that we bring those kids back after the summer," said Dance, adding that school officials have been seeing students leave the system.

Dance, who has pledged to emphasize equity, said closing the racial gap in graduation rates "is what I am really excited about."

The percentage of black students graduating from Baltimore County high schools has risen by 7 percentage points in the past five years and is now less than a percentage point behind the rate for white students. Dance now wants to attack the gender gap: Boys are graduating at a lower rate than girls.

The graduation rate tracks the percentage of students who graduate in four years. The state also reports the number who graduate in five years, which stands at 89 percent.

The state's dropout rate fell to an all-time low of 8 percent. But even as the state rate dropped by 4 percentage points, Baltimore's dropout rate rose two percentage points.

Prince George's County, which put in place significant support for students, has seen its graduation rate rise faster than other districts. It went up 5 percentage points in three years, hitting 79 percent last year.

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