Counting graduates

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's high school graduation rate has been found wanting yet again - an abysmal 35 percent and fourth lowest among the nation's 50 largest districts, according to a new study. Even worse, the gap between the city's rate and the 82 percent rate in neighboring suburban districts was the nation's largest. State and city education officials are challenging the calculations - and even have two different calculations of their own. But they rightfully concede that whatever the numbers, they are far too low. Beyond Baltimore, the lack of urgency to help more students finish high school is apparent in similarly disturbing statistics across the country.

Determining how many students graduate and how many drop out can be tricky because there are different ways of counting them. The latest study, released by America's Promise Alliance, a partnership of business and nonprofit groups, uses a complicated formula that may not adequately account for student mobility, particularly in urban, minority districts. Using another method, the Maryland State Department of Education puts the city's rate at 60 percent, and city school officials give an estimate of 45 percent.

The discrepancies are not unique to Maryland, but states have been appallingly lax in fixing the problem. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings made the welcome, if belated, announcement yesterday that her department will ensure that all states use the same formula to calculate graduation and dropout rates as a measure of progress under the No Child Left Behind law.

In a highly mobile society, the best way to know who finishes high school is to track students individually. Last September, MSDE gave each high school freshman an identification number that should follow the student to any school in the state. It should help track students who are at risk of dropping out, allowing for more interventions and support services.

But however these students are counted, there's no disputing this: Quality services must be provided to more of them - particularly minority, disabled and non-English-speaking students. A high school diploma has become a necessary ticket for employment and even a healthy life. Maryland and other states must ensure that each student is given every opportunity to gain this credential.

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