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Graduation rate overhaul

The Baltimore Sun

With Congress stalled on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind law, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has been coming up with regulatory changes as a last-minute substitute. It's an imperfect way to deal with complaints about the law, and last week's announced changes could have both good and bad consequences for Maryland and Baltimore.

Maryland is ahead of the pack in getting tutoring services to low-income students in troubled schools, and parents usually get timely notice that they can transfer their children out of failing schools - areas in which Secretary Spellings rightly wants some other states to improve.

The biggest target for improvement is a new rule to establish a uniform way to compute high school graduation rates that all states must adhere to by 2013. Ms. Spellings' formula would require schools to be able to track how many students entered high school in a given year and how many received a diploma four years later, adjusting for transfers in and out. Maryland started to do this last fall, using a unique student identifier. But any ID method has to be able to follow highly mobile students across county and state lines.

While exceptions to the four-year graduation term might be granted for students who are disabled or have limited English proficiency, the new calculation will be troublesome for urban districts such as Baltimore where many students take five or even six years to get a diploma. Four years should be the norm, and a uniform measure will make schools that fall short more obvious. But the proposed new rule will be a challenge for many schools with large numbers of at-risk students.

As NCLB continues to hold schools accountable for annual progress, state and city education officials must redouble efforts to ensure that every student receives the support and services to succeed.

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