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State sets four-year graduation benchmark

55% is called a start for urban high schools

All Massachusetts public high schools must graduate at least 55 percent of their students in four years, according to a benchmark approved yesterday by the state Board of Education despite the concern of some members that it was too low.

The board unanimously set the standard well below the state average of nearly 80 percent to give struggling schools in cities such as Boston, Lawrence, and Chelsea time to improve.

But even with a 55 percent threshhold, education officials expect at least 19 high schools will be flagged when school accountability reports are issued this fall for failing to graduate enough students.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires that all states track graduation rates, as well as standardized test scores and other measures. Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress toward these measures, including graduation rates, face sanctions. If they do not improve, they could eventually be candidates for state intervention.

If the standard were set at the state average of 80 percent, at least 84 schools, a quarter of the state's 330 public high schools, would have missed the bar.

Before the vote, board member Henry M. Thomas III said he worried that minority students in particular were being held to a lower standard. Urban school systems with a high percentage of nonwhite students have a lower four-year graduation rate of 62 percent.

"I'm concerned about expectations," Thomas told the board. "My concern is that . . . if we set a rate that is lower than one might reasonably think it should be, then people will perform according to that low number."

Board chairman Christopher R. Anderson said his initial reaction also was that the benchmark was pretty low. But he said it was appropriate, given the challenges some districts face. State education officials said urban school systems have high student turnover and above-average rates of students who have learning disabilities or aren't fluent in English.

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said he recommended the 55 percent standard as a start. In a memo to the board, he said the rule would force struggling schools to improve their rate. He said three-fourths of Massachusetts high schools graduate 80 percent or more of their students in four years. In the suburbs, close to 100 percent of students graduate in four years.

This is the first year the state has collected such data. The initial rates, released earlier this month, showed wide gaps along racial, ethnic, and economic lines.

The board also pledged to explore ways to evaluate schools based on how many students graduate in five years. About 6 percent of the class of 2006 is still in school, while 11.7 percent dropped out, state data show.