More Maryland high school students are graduating and fewer are dropping out than two years ago, defying critics of the state's graduation testing requirement who feared the tougher standards would drive kids to leave school or fail.
The dropout rate, which fell in 16 Maryland school districts this year, took a particularly steep dive in Baltimore City, where nearly 1,500 fewer students left high school last year than in 2007, according to data released by the state Wednesday. At 4 percent, the city's dropout rate is now half what it was three years ago, a swift decline that won praise from education experts.
"It's not unprecedented, but it's rare, and it's really an accomplishment," said Bob Balfanz, research scientist for the Johns Hopkins University's Talent Development High Schools, who has studied graduation and dropout rates nationally.
"The number is more impressive than the percent," he added. "That's 1,500 more kids who have a future."
Critics of the new graduation requirements had feared thousands of students might either become discouraged they would never pass the four end-of-course tests and drop out of high school or that students would stay and fail to get a diploma in the spring of their senior year.
But state officials say they believe that the High School Assessments have only raised the standards for students and enabled more to get a diploma. The data now show that in most high schools in the state at least 90 percent of students pass all four tests. Others met the requirement through "bridge" projects, which students can complete if they do not pass a test in one or more subjects, or a combined score.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the state's dropout rate is the lowest it has been in 11 years and credited the HSA requirement, which was introduced for the Class of 2009.
"We feel the High School Assessments have been a positive force," she said.
More students did, however, fail to get a diploma solely because they couldn't meet the testing requirements — 33 this year compared to 11 last year — but the proportion was still less than 1 percent of the 60,000 students who graduated from Maryland schools in June.
Grasmick said the results showed again that very few students are being prevented from graduating. Students must pass tests in biology, English II, American government and Algebra I.
Fewer students got waivers this year than last year, according to the state data, although the number of students passing by doing projects increased from 5.8 percent to 8.1 percent this year.
Matthew Joseph, executive director for Advocates for Children and Youth, who originally criticized the idea of the tests, said he believes that Maryland had to create loopholes to allow the lower-performing kids to be able to meet the graduation standard.
"What they did is they lowered the standard, basically. Is it a meaningful standard?" he said.
Since nearly 100 percent of students are meeting the test requirements, he asked, "What is the value of having it at all?"
Overall, the state graduation rate rose 1 percentage point, to 86.5 percent for the Class of 2010, and the dropout rate fell to 2.5 percent.
Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso addressed the state of the city's high schools in a news conference Wednesday, praising the significantly declining dropout rate, the gains in high school enrollment and the increased graduation rate as evidence of the district's transformation.
Grasmick attended the presentation to congratulate the district on its numbers, which she said contributed to the successes of the state and contradicted the theory that the HSAs would yield a higher number of dropouts.
"These are kids that we can count," Alonso said in an interview. "We're not talking about test scores — this is something that is undeniable."
Alonso attributed the decline to the district's twice-a-year campaign to solicit students to return to school, including central office staff knocking on doors of dropouts.
In addition, the number of city high school students who passed the HSAs increased by a little more than 500 from last year.
The majority of the city's students graduated by passing the tests. Of the nearly 4,300 graduates last year, 28 percent produced bridge projects and 1 percent received waivers.
Alonso said that he believes that bridge projects are an opportunity for students to have engaging instruction, but he would like to see the number of students who use them decline.
"It's led to real individuation of the work," he said. "But if we look beyond to the goal of making sure they're successful in college, we have to drive up the number of kids who are passing the tests."
The city's graduation rate for the 2009-2010 school year was 66 percent, according to calculations from state data, a nearly 3 percentage point increase from 2009. The district awarded 136 more diplomas in 2010 than last year.
"I will not be happy until we get to 100 percent, but what I see is huge growth," Alonso said.
Baltimore County's graduation rate also rose significantly in the past two years, from 82 percent to 86 percent. Some of the system's lowest-performing high schools had the greatest recent increases. Lansdowne High's rate increased by 10 percentage points and Dundalk High's by 12 percentage points during the two-year period.
The only cloud in the state's data was that more immigrants, called English Language Learners, failed to get their diploma last year than the year before. The graduation rate for English Language Learners fell from 82 percent to 78 percent, significantly lower than poor students, but higher than special education students.
Grasmick said the state was becoming home to more students who come to this country with little or no education and must make up for years of lost learning in high school. She said an increasing number of these students are girls who lived in countries where education was not accepted or not considered important for women.
"This is a population where we really have to dig down and provide a support system," she said, adding that these students are found in nearly all jurisdictions. English Language Learners are also dropping out at rates higher than African-American and special education students.
The dropout rate for poor students rose slightly this year compared to last year, from 2.2 percent to 2.3 percent.