Graduation rates: Does your school district make the grade?

Tuesday - 6/7/2011, 6:11pm EDT

Richard Colvin on former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

Education Sector

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Kate Ryan, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- They go in with high expectations, but how many kids actually complete high school within four years? Education Week released a report of graduation rankings across the nation. Here is a look at the country's 50 largest school districts.

Several local counties ranked at the top of the class. Montgomery County leads the way with an 86 percent graduation rate. Fairfax's 85 percent puts the Virginia county in second place.

Also in the top 20: Prince William County at 68 percent and Prince George's County at 67 percent.

The figures only reflect students who enroll as freshmen and receive a diploma within four years. They do not include students who get a GED or students who earn certificates instead. The statistics cover the class of 2008.

When looking at a state-by-state breakdown, Maryland ranks 16th in the nation with a graduation rate of 77 percent. Virginia is 28th with a graduation rate of nearly 73 percent.

The District, counted as a state, comes in at 51. It dropped to 43 percent, a 6-percent decline from the previous year.

Richard Colvin from Education Sector, a D.C.-based think tank, says the low numbers cannot be blamed on just one factor.

"A 1-year change is a blip that's not really statistically significant," he says.

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post reporter who's written extensively on school reform, agrees with Colvin. He views the drop in D.C.'s graduation rate as reflective of socio-economic issues combined with principals getting "more honest" about recording graduation numbers.

Colvin points out that the District's graduation rates were on an upward trend between 1998 and 2007. They went up from 37 to 49 percent.

"Still, that's nowhere near good enough for our country, for the city, for the kids that are being negatively affected by it," he says.

Leadership is "a very important factor" in boosting graduation rates, but it's just part of the bigger picture. What's really needed is "sustained leadership that's focused on supporting a wide variety of kids with a wide variety of needs to help them get to graduation day."

So should a family base their decision to move to a school district on graduation rates? Not necessarily.

"Parents have to know their own kid," Colvin says.

"If their individual son or daughter is someone who is self-motivated and focused and takes advantages of the resources around them, they're probably going to do fine, but if they're in a chaotic school that doesn't put a premium on serving all kids' needs, they may not."

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