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Three in Four Va. Students Graduate, Study Says
State Figure Exceeds Nation's; Gap Persists for Black Students

By Zinie Chen Sampson
Associated Press
Thursday, July 6, 2006

About three-quarters of the students in Virginia's public high schools graduate in four years, but the rates of black students are far below those of whites, according to a report by an education research group.

The graduation rate was higher than the national figure of 69.6 percent for the 2002-03 school year, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.

In Virginia, 77.8 percent of whites graduated, compared with 64.1 percent of blacks. Black male students had the lowest graduation rate, 57.6 percent.

Data for Hispanics and Asians in Virginia weren't reported because the number of students was too small to make reliable estimates, the report said.

Nationally, white students' graduation rate was 76.2 percent, compared with 77 percent for Asian students, 55.6 percent for Hispanic students and 51.6 percent for black students. Black males had a graduation rate of 44.3 percent.

Fairfax County led the nation's 50 largest school divisions with an 82.5 percent graduation rate. Fairfax is Virginia's largest school division and the nation's 14th largest.

Among Virginia's biggest districts, suburban schools fared better than urban ones: Loudoun County had a graduation rate of 94.5 percent, and Stafford County's was 86.6. In Arlington, the rate was 77.6 percent, and Prince William's was 67.1. No figures were available for Alexandria.

Districts' racial and socioeconomic makeup affected graduation rates, with majority-black districts achieving markedly lower rates.

"The bigger story behind the numbers is that there are huge inequalities in terms of underfunding of local school systems across Virginia," said Andy Block, legal director of JustChildren, an advocacy group.

A 2003 report by a General Assembly commission found that having a high percentage of minority students in a school was "an accurate predictor" of a lack of highly qualified teachers, inadequate funding and a lack of parental involvement, he said.

"When schools have more resources, more attention and more incentive to graduate higher rates of kids, then there will be less of an education gap between white children and children of color," Block said.

Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, took issue with the report because it used total ninth-grade enrollment, rather than first-time ninth-grade enrollment. The Department of Education says the 2002-03 graduation rate was 82 percent, and the National Center for Education Statistics reported a rate of 80.6 percent, Pyle said.

The 2002-03 school year was the last before Virginia required students to pass six Standards of Learning tests to graduate with a standard diploma. A Department of Education study of the Class of 2004 found that the graduation rate for blacks fell by 5 percentage points, to 61.3 percent, and that the rate for Hispanics dropped by 11 percentage points, to 66.5 percent.

Pyle said that the change could cause more students to be held back or to leave school. But the state has been helping students with extra programs, he said.

"The important thing is to have standards that ensure that when a student earns a diploma, he or she is equipped with the skills needed for success, and at the same time offer opportunities for remediation and additional instruction," Pyle said.

He said that the disparity between the graduation rates for blacks and whites was "nothing new" and that about 30 school systems had started programs to help middle school students make the transition to high school. The national study found that 35 percent fail to progress to the 10th grade.

The study also noted that the federal No Child Left Behind Act uses graduation rates to determine whether high schools and school districts meet annual benchmarks, but that the U.S. Department of Education allows each state to choose its own method for calculating the rates and to set its own targets.

Virginia's target is 57 percent. In response to comments by advocacy groups, the state Board of Education this spring made an increase in graduation rates a goal of Virginia's school accreditation standards, which have been based on students' rates of passing tests in content areas.

"The current system, with its emphasis on pass rates, creates incentives for schools to potentially lose track of kids that don't perform well on tests," Block said. "Until we stop rewarding local school systems for losing track of them, graduation rates will remain the Achilles' heel of Virginia's accountability system."

The EPE Research Center is a division of Editorial Projects in Education Inc., publisher of the newspaper Education Week.

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