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State may nudge bar upward for graduation rate

Commissioner to seek board's vote

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / March 24, 2009
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The US Department of Education asked Massachusetts to set a "more challenging" graduation rate standard, but a proposed change under consideration by the state may do little to coax more public high schools to graduate larger number of students.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of elementary and secondary education, plans to ask his agency's board this morning to approve a four-year graduation rate standard of 65 percent, well below last year's statewide average of more than 81 percent.

The proposed change probably would not create a hardship for additional schools, according to a state analysis that found that the proposed rate along with other changes could leave the noncompliance rate essentially unchanged. Only 52 high schools, fewer than 15 percent of all high schools in the state, did not meet last year's standard of 60 percent.

In an interview, Chester acknowledged that the standard is not as high as he would like it to be, but in an era of limited money and resources, he said, the rate enables the state to identify schools that need the help the most.

"I am not satisfied with 65 percent, but it's the right move for this time," said Chester, noting that the recommendation follows action by the board last year that raised the rate by 5 percentage points. Such a move, he said, could be repeated in future years.

The proposal comes as many business leaders and other groups have raised increasing concerns about low graduation rates in urban districts, leaving cities such as Boston with too many young residents unprepared to enter a more highly skilled workforce, which at minimum requires training from a community college. Some expressed disappointment about the state's incremental approach to raising the standard.

"There's always reluctance to set a goal you can't meet," said Linda M. Noonan, managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, an organization that works with the business community to improve public education. "We will continue to have dropout factories in the state if we don't focus on the issue in an aggressive way."

Setting a higher graduation rate standard can spur high schools to do what they need to do to get more students to graduation. The graduation rate is one of the standards the state uses to judge whether high schools are in compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which places sanctions on schools that fail to meet performance targets set by individual states. Schools that fail to meet the standards for at least five years could face a state takeover.

In Massachusetts, the state not only judges the graduation rate of the school as a whole, but also in certain categories of students based on race and ethnicity or other designations.

Many of those student subgroups have been struggling, prompting Chester's desire to target resources to schools that serve large populations of those students. Of particular concern, Chester said, were the four-year graduation rates last year of 58.3 percent for Hispanics, 55.8 percent for students who speak limited English, and 64.1 percent for special education students.

"There may be a school where the graduation rate is at 80 percent but a particular group of students are not even getting to the 65 percent level. Those are the schools I have the greatest concern about," Chester said.

Urban districts, which have the highest concentration of those students, have been struggling the most in meeting the graduation rate standard. In Boston, 21 schools that serve grades 9-12 last year had overall graduation rates below 60 percent, while the remaining 13 schools were above 65 percent, according to state data. It was not clear from the data which schools that exceeded the overall rate may have had subgroups that fell short of the standard.

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