81% Got Diplomas On Time This Year

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008; Page B04

About 81 percent of Virginia students who entered public high school four years ago earned diplomas with the Class of 2008, state officials said yesterday. It is the first time the state has tracked each student's progress instead of relying on an estimate.

But many minority students and many from poor families did not graduate alongside their classmates. About 70 percent of Hispanic students and those from low-income homes who started ninth grade in fall 2004 graduated this spring. The on-time graduation rate among black students was about 73 percent.

Several Northern Virginia school systems beat the statewide rate. In Fairfax County, 91 percent of 2004 freshmen graduated. The rates were about 83 percent in Prince William County, nearly 93 percent in Loudoun County and nearly 98 percent in Falls Church.

Patricia I. Wright, state superintendent of public instruction, said that the graduation rate was slightly higher than the 80 percent estimate for the Class of 2007 but that the data show a need to increase efforts to ensure that minority and economically disadvantaged students complete their course requirements and walk across the stage after four years of high school.

"We are better off than what we thought we were, but we are not as good as what we want to be," Wright said.

Concern about dropouts has prompted a movement among politicians and education advocates across the country to seek, even mandate, a more precise accounting of the share of high school students who graduate in four years. Although a diploma is among the most tangible measures of student success, states calculate graduation rates in different ways. The lack of a uniform definition has prompted criticism that the dropout problem is understated.

Virginia is the first local jurisdiction to track the progress of individual students, each of whom is assigned an identifying number, over the traditional four-year high school term. The state allows extra time for students with disabilities and those learning English to get a diploma.

Maryland, which estimates that 85 percent of students graduate in four years, is moving toward a similar method of tracking each student and expects to begin releasing a more precise graduation rate in 2011. District public schools estimate a 70 percent graduation rate.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is using her regulatory power through the federal No Child Left Behind law to require that all states use the same formula for graduation rates by 2013. The rule is expected to become final this year.

Virginia officials said that not all students who fail to get diplomas in four years are dropouts. They said thousands who started ninth grade in 2004 remain in school and are working toward graduation. Others have gotten GEDs or certificates of completion.

In Alexandria, where more than half of students come from families poor enough to qualify for school lunch subsidies, about 76 percent of 2004 freshmen earned diplomas this spring. Superintendent Morton Sherman, who took over the city schools in August, said educators will craft a specific learning plan for each student to boost achievement. The schools also are adding more rigorous programs.

"As I look at these numbers as a new superintendent, we could be and we should be doing better," Sherman said.

The statewide data show a gap between male and female students. More than 84 percent of girls earned diplomas in four years, compared with 78 percent of boys.

Former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a group seeking to improve high schools, said that if shipping companies can track packages, schools should be able to trace the progress of students. He said having students graduate with a strong academic background is the ultimate test of state and federal reforms.

"Graduation from high school is the jumping-off point for college and the workplace," Wise said. "If we can't document how a child finished, let alone if a child finished, we have real problems."

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