Baltimore County's public school graduation rate is the fourth-highest among the nation's 50 largest systems, according to a report issued yesterday by a national education news organization. Baltimore City was ranked 48th.
The county's 80.3 percent graduation rate compares with a national average of 70.6 percent and a state average of 73.6 percent, Education Week and county school officials reported.
To maintain the county's high ranking, educators will have to become more innovative as they strive to prepare students to pass the state's High School Assessments, which are a graduation requirement beginning with the Class of 2009, county schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said yesterday.
The rankings, compiled by Education Week in its third annual Diploma Counts report, were based on the Class of 2005. That, Hairston pointed out, was before state education officials began requiring students to pass exit exams to earn a diploma.
"It's harder now to get that graduation rate," he said. "The ranking represents some degree of stability and effectiveness on the school system's part. But in order for the Class of 2009 and beyond to do as well, our students need to be prepared."
The school systems with the top three graduation rates were Cypress-Fairbanks, Texas (89.6 percent), Jordan, Utah (82.6 percent) and Maryland's Montgomery County (81.7 percent).
Detroit was the lowest-ranked large school system, with a 37.5 percent graduation rate.
The official graduation rate for Baltimore City, as reported by the state, is about 20 percentage points higher than the Education Week figure of 41.5 percent, and there has been considerable debate about which method of calculation is more accurate. The rankings were compiled using data from 2005, and the city school system has changed chief executive officers twice since then.
The current CEO, Andres Alonso, says he suspects that the graduation rate is between the two numbers, but that, in any case, not enough city students are completing high school. In attempt to improve the graduation rate, the city school system is overhauling its alternative programs this summer, opening a school for students who are overage for their grade, who are the most likely to drop out.
Hairston's comment followed a brief visit yesterday afternoon to the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, where he joined about 20 students from Golden Ring Middle School for part of a daylong trip to learn more about college. More than 2,000 county eighth-graders have participated in the college visits throughout the school year, school officials said.
Hairston said the partnership between the school system and the community college, College Gateway, is an example of the initiatives being implemented as the system stops giving its middle schools federal Title I money aimed at concentrations of low-income students. School officials have said they decided to start spending all their Title I funds in the county's elementary schools beginning next month so that they can use those funds where they will have the greatest impact.
"Spending [Title I] money for kids at the middle school level doesn't help if they are in eighth-grade reading at the third-grade level," he said. "It makes more sense to invest that money in the elementary schools so those students don't get behind."
Hairston said the system plans to undertake more college-readiness programs, including College Gateway, in its middle schools.
The Education Week report can be seen online at www.edweek.org/ew/toc/2008/06/05/index.html.
Sun reporter Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.