Study Puts Montgomery on Top in Graduation Rates

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eleven of 17 school systems in the Washington area have graduation rates that compare well with those of similar districts across the nation, according to a new analysis by the trade journal Education Week.

The ratings are a new feature in the annual report "Diplomas Count," an effort to estimate accurate graduation rates for every U.S. school district. The report, now in its fourth edition, has helped spark an era of reform in how graduates are counted.

The report, released last week, shows graduation rates ranging from 48.8 percent for D.C. schools to 91.3 percent for the school system in Falls Church. The figures are for 2006, the latest available from the federal government.

Although some educators rebuff Education Week's comparatively unflattering data, the report shows most Washington area systems outperforming other school districts. The Montgomery County system, for example, is tied with a Houston area district for first among the nation's 50 largest with its graduation rate of 80.7 percent. Fairfax County ranks fourth, with a graduation rate of 78.8 percent. Anne Arundel County ranks eighth, at 70.2 percent.

Graduation rates are among the most poorly reported data in education. In Maryland and the District, official graduation rates are based not on how many students graduate but on how many are known to have dropped out, a figure that is generally understated. A few years ago, all 50 governors agreed on a new, more accurate graduation rate based on individual student identifiers.

Virginia was among the first states to adopt the new formula. Its latest graduation data, for the Class of 2008, account for every student who started as a freshman four years earlier -- with significant caveats. Maryland and the District are moving toward the same method.

The analysis of Education Week estimates graduation rates based on attrition of students from one year to the next. Many in the education field have embraced Education Week's work, at least until all states have the capability to track individual students as Virginia does. Some officials dispute Education Week's method because it is an estimate and because it does not account for students who transfer or repeat a grade.

"We have what we feel is much better information," said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, which rolled out its new graduation formula last fall.

"We have the same outcomes and expectations for every child, regardless of their backgrounds and their circumstances," said Jerry D. Weast, Montgomery school superintendent. In-house research has found that Montgomery high school graduates finish college at about twice the national rate.

The Education Week analysis also gives each district a performance score, rating its graduation rate against those of other districts with similar enrollments and socioeconomic characteristics. Thus, although the 48.8 percent graduation rate for D.C. schools seems low, the analysis says it's on par with completion rates for similar urban districts. (Baltimore schools, for example, have a graduation rate of 44.6 percent.)

The D.C. schools earn a rating of 100, which means the system's graduation rate is "exactly what would be expected, given such characteristics as its size, poverty level, location, and funding patterns," said Christopher Swanson, research director at the Bethesda-based nonprofit group Editorial Projects in Education, publisher of Education Week.

Jennifer Calloway, spokeswoman for D.C. schools, said school officials "reject the conclusion that with less than half of our students graduating, we're on par with expectations." She said the district plans to begin using student identifiers to track graduation rates in the 2010-11 academic year.

Loudoun County, with a graduation rate of 89.3 percent, earns a performance score of 117.9 from Education Week, highest among the area's school systems. One of the lowest ratings goes to St. Mary's County, with a graduation rate of 60.8 percent and a rating of 77.4. Neighboring Charles County, with more poor and minority students, has a higher graduation rate (79.7 percent) and a higher performance rating (108.3).

Prince George's County, whose graduation rate was 63.2 percent, received a 104.6 rating from Education Week.

Official state-produced graduation rates for Washington area school systems are invariably higher than the estimates from Education Week, by as much as 20 points. In the case of D.C. and Maryland schools, officials contend their official rates are fairly accurate, even though they are based on fallible dropout counts.

"No graduation rate alone tells a complete story," said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education.

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