Improving graduation rates are a positive stepping stone toward creating life-long learners who understand the value of a good education, but those statistics should also be looked at in a broader context that highlights how well prepared students are once they receive their diploma.

Carroll was the only Maryland school district that boasts a graduation rate of 95 percent or higher, according to data released Monday by the state Department of Education. Across Maryland, graduation rates improved for the fourth year in a row to about 86 percent.

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Carroll schools Superintendent Steve Guthrie credited staff, students and a supportive community for the achievement. "These three are essential for any school system to be successful," he said. "If you don't have them all, you can only get part of the way there."

Likewise, having a graduation rate is important, but without a quality education behind that diploma students can only get part of the way toward their goals.

The number of students in the school system taking advanced placement classes, growth in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – STEM – courses and the number of students who have to take remedial level classes when they get to college are also important statistics that need to be factored in to any formula that is looking at the success of schools.

Nationwide students have been backsliding compared to their counterparts across the world. Additionally, a Jan. 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Education noted that 20 percent of the first-year undergraduate students enrolled in institutes of higher learning took some remedial classes in the 2007-08 school year. The percentage ranged from 12.8 percent in institutions that were selective in who they admitted to 25.6 percent in institutions with open enrollment.

Students who need to take remedial courses will pay more because of the additional classes and will likely take longer to graduate. That may serve as a disincentive for students and families struggling to find ways to pay for rising tuition costs. Additionally, in areas where they can't take remedial classes, the workload may be such that the students don't do well, possibly resulting in them dropping out of college.

None of these potential barriers means much if students aren't graduating in the first place, so it is good that there is a focus on that and results are being tracked. At the same time, graduation is more of a beginning than an end, and we owe it to students to ensure that they are well-prepared to enter the next chapter of their lives.

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