Almost two-thirds of Baltimore high school students fail to get diplomas, a figure so low that it ranks as the nation's third-worst, according to a study released by the publication Education Week.
Only 34.6 percent of Baltimore high school students graduated four years after they began school, according to the study, which analyzed 2004 data. The only school systems with worse figures were Detroit and Cleveland, where the graduation rates were 24.9 percent and 34.1 percent, respectively.
Baltimore schools officials disputed Education Week's new findings, just as they did last year when the journal reported that the city's graduation rate was 38.5 percent in 2003, which ranked as the nation's second-worst, behind Detroit with 21.7 percent.
Although Baltimore's graduation rate dropped nearly 4 percentage points from 2003 to 2004, according to Education Week, its ranking moved up a notch to third-worst because of falling figures in Cleveland.
A Baltimore schools official said the system's graduation rate was 54.3 percent for 2004 and that the figure rose to 60 percent last year.
Ben Feldman, who is in charge of testing for city schools, said districts with large numbers of transient students, such as Baltimore, are unfairly punished.
The Education Week study, using data from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data, compares the number of students in an upper-level grade with the number of students a grade below in the previous year.
For example, the study compares the number of 12th-graders with the number of 11th-graders from the year before. In doing so, researchers are not relying on schools to report that specific students have dropped out.
Feldman said the study fails to account for students who leave one school district without notification but register in another.
"It needs to span a four-year period, and it doesn't do that," Feldman said.
Researchers acknowledge that their findings average about 15 percentage points lower than what states report as their graduation rates.
Christopher B. Swanson, the lead researcher for the Education Week study, said that all states except Alaska reported higher graduation rates.
"Different measures generate different numbers, and these numbers have consequences, whether it's for accountability or just public information," Swanson said. "It's a real challenge for the public to sort through this information."
In December 2005, the National Governors Association signed a pact to implement a standard graduation-rate assessment, and the organization is asking states to begin using identification numbers to track students.
The Maryland General Assembly passed legislation last year requiring the use of tracking numbers by 2011.
Maryland schools officials have calculated a high school's graduation rate by dividing the number of graduates by the number of graduates plus dropouts. The state, however, is considering another methodology.
This fall, the state will introduce an individual student identifier, a number that will be attached to students and follow them as they move toward graduation.
State schools officials say this will enable better tracking of student mobility from school to school, system to system, and state to state.