Montgomery schools track graduates' rate of college degrees

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Montgomery County graduates: Your schools are watching you, long after you've left them behind.

Montgomery public schools, one of the few systems in the country that tracks its students all the way through college graduation, released a report Monday that details how many of its students went on to receive bachelor's degrees -- and how they got there. According to school system data, students who passed advanced math courses in middle school and high school and took at least one Advanced Placement test were much more likely to graduate from college.

"If you have students who are taking algebra in the eighth grade," said Montgomery schools spokesman Dana Tofig, "they're getting college degrees."

Last year, Montgomery schools unveiled a seven-step plan that parents can use to ensure that their children are on the road to college. The "Seven Keys to College Readiness," as Superintendent Jerry D. Weast termed them, attempt to orient students toward college, beginning in kindergarten, by detailing the courses and tests that officials say point to academic success.

Results have been tracked since 2001, and the data released Monday examine students who graduated from high school from 2001 to 2004.

Just 47 percent of the 34,000 tracked graduates received bachelor's degrees within six years of high school. Nationwide, 31 percent of people ages 25 to 29 had bachelor's degrees in 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The data show that Montgomery students who passed Algebra I in the eighth grade were more than twice as likely to receive a bachelor's degree than those who didn't have the early algebra exposure -- 75 percent for the eighth-grade math students, compared with 34 percent who didn't take the course.

Two-thirds of students who passed Algebra II by the end of their junior year of high school went on to receive bachelor's degrees, compared with just under a fifth of students who didn't meet the benchmark.

Taking and passing an Advanced Placement exam was also a good predictor of finishing college.

But troubling gaps remain. Slightly more than a quarter of Montgomery's African American graduates and a fifth of Hispanic graduates received bachelor's degrees, compared with 58 percent of white students and 55 percent of Asian American students. Even for students who passed Algebra I in eighth grade, 77 percent of white students received bachelor's degrees compared with two-thirds of African American students and 58 percent of Hispanic students.

And African American and Hispanic students also were far less likely to pass eighth-grade Algebra I, according to the data. Just 10 percent of black and Hispanic students took and passed the course, compared with 39 percent of white students.

One education researcher praised Montgomery for tracking its graduates all the way through college, but he cautioned that focusing on what students need to do to make it to college is just part of the picture.

"What it doesn't say is what the school ought to be doing," said David Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, who has written about how to define college readiness.

Conley said the center recommends that schools take extra steps, such as providing financial aid workshops for parents, and require that every student apply to college. And he said that skills, not just course work, are also important for college readiness, including knowing how to write a structured research paper and conduct research experiments using the scientific method.

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