Baltimore school officials are disputing the results of a new study showing that the city's high schools had the second-worst graduation rate among the nation's 50 largest school systems.
The study, published by the journal Education Week last week, maintains that only 38.5 percent of Baltimore's high school students graduated four years after they began high school. Only Detroit, where the graduation rate was 21.7 percent, had a lower rate. The city school system says its graduation rate was 54 percent in 2003, the year analyzed in the study, and improved to 59 percent last year.
The dispute over the results in Baltimore highlights a national debate over how to accurately measure graduation rates. One state official said there are "literally dozens of different ways of calculating graduation rates," all of them with shortcomings.
The state has school systems calculate graduation rates differently than the Education Week study, with a method that an Education Week researcher said tends to yield higher numbers of graduates.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, the presumed Democratic nominee for governor, has been praising the city's improved graduation rate in his campaign, using the state figures. Conservative radio programs supporting Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are using the Education Week figure to discredit O'Malley.
Despite the difference in methodology from what her department uses, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the Education Week study is a legitimate measure and reflects the poor condition of Baltimore's middle schools. She said that students are going to high school ill-prepared and that "they become discouraged and they do drop out."
"Until that situation is stabilized," Grasmick said, "I am not optimistic that we are going to change this graduation rate. ... It is a sobering situation."
If Baltimore's graduation rate has improved in the past three years, she added, "we would have to assume that improvement probably exists in all of the urban areas against which they're being compared because every state is focusing on it. The relative position is probably the same."
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said Grasmick's comments speak for the governor's administration.
Vanessa Pyatt, a city school system spokeswoman, released a statement saying the Education Week study "grossly underreports our 2003 graduation rate by more than 15 points. ... Unfortunately, the researcher chose not to consult with Baltimore City school officials and ignored official ... data."
The problem at the heart of the controversy is that schools don't generally track students who leave before graduating, making it impossible to know whether they moved or transferred to another school or if they dropped out.
"You ideally want to follow individual students over time," said Christopher B. Swanson, the lead researcher for the Education Week study. "Of the number of students who start out in ninth grade, how many get a diploma four years later?"
Without that information, Swanson said, "the states are calculating the rates in all kinds of ways, and most are doing it in a way that tends to inflate the numbers. Maryland falls into this category."
The National Governors Association is trying to standardize graduation rates around the country, asking states to begin using identification numbers to track students. The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation this year requiring the use of such numbers by 2011.
In the meantime, Maryland officials calculate a high school's graduation rate by dividing the number of graduates by the number of graduates plus dropouts. A dropout is defined as a student who leaves school before graduation and is not known to have enrolled in another school.
The Education Week study used a more complex formula. It compared the number of 10th-graders against the number of ninth-graders the year before, the number of 11th-graders with the number of 10th-graders the previous year, and so on. In doing so, researchers are not relying on schools to report that specific students have dropped out.
On the flip side, the method assumes that the number of students transferring out of a school for legitimate reasons is balanced by the number of students transferring in. That might be problematic in Baltimore, where transiency is high and enrollment is declining, said Gary Heath, assistant state superintendent for accountability and assessment. Heath said the state's method is not affected by student transfers.
But Swanson said students in Baltimore generally move within the city, meaning the overall graduation rate for high schools would not be affected. He said his method tends to produce graduation rates that are on average 14 points lower than the method used by Maryland officials.
The Education Week study included Maryland's five largest school systems: Montgomery, Prince George's, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and Baltimore City. The Baltimore County school system had the third-best graduation rate in the study, 81.9 percent, followed by Montgomery, which came in fourth with a graduation rate of 81.5 percent. Anne Arundel was 12th-best, with a rate of 70.2 percent, while Prince George's was 18th, with 67.3 percent.
The study also examined state and national graduation rates. Nationally, it found that 69.6 percent of students graduate from high school. Maryland schools fared better than the national average, with a graduation rate of 74.4 percent in 2003. The state's calculations show its graduation rate was between 84 percent and 85 percent in 2003, 2004 and 2005.