A Closer Look at Graduation Rates

Calvert County's high school graduation rate rose to 86 percent from 2003 to 2005, according to a recent report. St. Mary's County showed a decline in that period, the report said.
Calvert County's high school graduation rate rose to 86 percent from 2003 to 2005, according to a recent report. St. Mary's County showed a decline in that period, the report said. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Although high schools in the Washington region are showing steady improvement on measures such as Advanced Placement testing and end-of-course exams, that success might not be translating to higher graduation rates, according to the latest data from a Bethesda nonprofit group that is a leading authority on high school completion rates.

The official graduation rates published by states and school systems are widely regarded as inflated and unreliable. Many in the field have come to rely instead on the annual Diplomas Count report from Editorial Projects in Education, publisher of the trade newspaper Education Week.

The report estimates how many students in ninth grade graduate on time with their class, using a series of calculations that measure attrition from one grade level to the next.

The group's latest report, released this month, showed graduation rates among local school systems range from a high of 93 percent in affluent Loudoun County to a low of 57 percent in high-poverty Prince George's County. The report uses enrollment figures to estimate the graduation rate, not for current graduates but for the Class of 2005, the most recent data available from the federal government.

Because the numbers are dated, they are of limited use in assessing how well the school systems are doing now. But after three consecutive reports, the Diplomas Count effort gives a good glimpse of trends in the middle of the decade, a time when schools in the D.C. region were charting steady progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Six of 13 Washington area school systems showed improvement in their graduation rates from 2003 to 2005, according to the report. Calvert County's graduation rate rose four points to 86 percent in that span, Anne Arundel's rose five points to 75 percent and Alexandria's rose seven points to 72 percent.

Seven school systems showed declines, including a 10-point drop to 57 percent in Prince George's and a six-point dip to 60 percent in St. Mary's County.

The national graduation rate crept up in the three years studied, from 69.6 percent in 2003 to 70.6 percent in 2005.

The report also found the two largest school systems in the region, Montgomery County's and Fairfax County's, ranked third and fifth, respectively, in graduation rates among the nation's 50 largest systems.

The estimates in Diplomas Count bear little relation to the official graduation rates published in Maryland, Virginia and the District, which are based not on how many students finish but on how many are known to have dropped out, a figure that is generally understated. Prince George's, for instance, reported graduation rates of 90 percent in 2003 and 87 percent in 2005.

Christopher Swanson, research director at Editorial Projects in Education, said large fluctuations in graduation rates, such as those reported in Prince George's and St. Mary's, can result from policy changes that affect completion rates, changes in how data are collected or an occasional error in the enrollment data reported to the federal government. Neither school system commented on the report.

Virginia, Maryland and the District all are moving toward a new way of reporting graduation rates based on individual student records.

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