By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
The on-time graduation rate for D.C. public schools has fallen below 50 percent, according to a new study, while the rates for Maryland and Virginia have not improved since the mid-1990s.
The study, released today by researchers affiliated with the trade publication Education Week, examined data from 1996 to 2006, the latest available federal figures, to calculate the percentage of students who graduate from high school within four years of starting ninth grade.
In 2006, the study found, the D.C. graduation rate fell to 48.8 percent, down 8.8 percentage points from the previous year. The figure did not include public charter schools.
The study also found that in 2006, Maryland's rate was 73.5 percent, virtually the same as the year before and unchanged since 1996; and that Virginia's rate was 69.2 percent, down 3.7 percentage points since 2005 and 4.2 points since 1996.
The 2006 national average in the study was identical to Virginia's. Although rates showed steady improvement across the country in the decade studied, the national numbers for the first time slipped in 2006, down 1.4 percentage points.
Virginia's graduation rate is "something we're working on," said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the state Department of Education. But he called the study's methodology "flawed" and said that the state's numbers showed a graduation rate in 2008 that is almost 13 points higher.
Last year, some independent experts criticized a previous Education Week-affiliated study for similar reasons.
Still, the report is one of the fullest views of graduation rate trends available. States calculate their rates through a variety of methods, making comparisons difficult. Last year, the Bush administration's Education Department ordered states to use a standard formula by 2013. That formula requires tracking individual students, in contrast to the method used by the Education Week affiliate, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which relies on analysis of overall student populations by grade level.
Virginia uses the federally endorsed method. Maryland also has started to use that method but will not have hard data for two more years, said Maryland State Department of Education spokesman Bill Reinhard.
President Obama has made high school graduation a priority, calling dropping out "quitting on your country." He also has pushed college attendance, setting a goal for the United States to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world by 2020.
The study also examined standards for high school diplomas from state to state, checking whether states explicitly define what it meant to be ready for college. Maryland was one of 20 states to define some form of college readiness.
In the economic downturn, credentials and diplomas are more important than ever, state officials said.
"The current economy kind of articulated that for everybody -- the need to do more than even high school graduation," Reinhard said.
Virginia does not define the concept but is working on such standards, state officials said. The District does not have a definition but is developing programs related to college preparation, such as an SAT prep course, said D.C. schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway.
Calloway declined to comment on the study's graduation numbers, saying that it was D.C. school policy not to discuss performance data from the period before schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee took office in 2007.