High Rankings For Area Schools

Ashwani Jain, left, Jessie Cai, Yukari Yamashiro, Katherine Relle and Nicole Melnick listen to a speaker during their graduation last month from Winston Churchill High School in Potomac. A study by Education Week ranked Montgomery County sixth in the nation among the 50 largest school districts for the percentage of students who earn high school diplomas in four years. Fairfax County ranked fifth and Baltimore County fourth. (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 2, 2007

A new study, offering a rare glimpse at how high school graduation rates compare across state lines, ranks Fairfax and Montgomery counties fifth and sixth, respectively, among the nation's large school districts for percentage of students earning diplomas in four years.

Baltimore County ranks even higher -- fourth -- in the analysis of graduation rates for the nation's 50 largest school districts by the publisher of Education Week, Editorial Projects in Education Inc., whose research on high school completion has been embraced by the Bush administration as a national model. Two other local systems, in Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, rank in the top 20.

The report, "Diplomas Count," arrived last month amid talk of an unfolding dropout crisis in the nation's public schools. The issue is not so much a decline in graduation rates, which have held fairly steady, as a growing consensus that the rates have been grossly overstated for years.

Few local school districts publish graduation data with any fanfare, and what data exist are widely regarded as unreliable. Yet, many educators consider the graduation rate to be as important as any test score because of the well-documented link between high school completion and future earning potential. The new report uses federal labor data to argue that students need a high school diploma and at least some college work to earn a decent wage.

"There is an absolute press to the wall on college readiness for all kids," said John E. Deasy, superintendent of Prince George's schools. "This stuff is driven right from my office across the system."

Prince George's schools work to keep students engaged, Deasy said, through summer and evening courses and programs such as College Summit, which aims to raise the number of college applications and to promote a college-bound culture in high schools.

The county's graduation rate, as calculated by Education Week, was 66.9 percent in 2004, the latest data available from the federal government. That's a bit below the national graduation rate of 69.9 percent for that year, but above the rates for 32 of the nation's 50 largest school districts.

Graduation rates in smaller local systems ranged from 58.2 percent in the District to 92.5 percent in Loudoun County. About 80 percent of students graduated in the larger Fairfax and Montgomery school systems. The report links to an online database of graduation data for every school district.

If the numbers sound low, that's because those school systems and state education departments typically report much higher rates. School systems in Virginia, Maryland and the District all estimate graduation rates based on the number of students known to have dropped out, and many dropouts are never counted.

All 50 governors have embraced a new way of figuring the graduation rate, based on the number of freshmen who make it to graduation four years later. The Education Week report uses a similar formula, based on simple attrition. It measures the change in the number of students enrolled in a high school class from freshman year to graduation. It's only an estimate, because it doesn't account for students who transfer in and out of schools or those who repeat grades.

Still, local superintendents praised the analysis, which shows most Washington area school systems outperforming the national average on an indicator that, researchers say, is seldom measured accurately.

"It's a giant step to at least have a formula," said Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery superintendent. "And the next step is to continuously improve the formula."

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