Raising Graduation Rates

Posted Jan. 19, 2010, at 6:29 p.m.

There has long been talk about raising Maine’s graduation rate, which has remained about the same for the last decade. A bill to be considered by lawmakers today would put a higher goal into state law and, as important, unify the way high school completion and dropout rates are tallied. These are important steps in moving toward a higher graduation rate rather than just talking about it.

During the 2007-08 school year, according to figures from the Maine Department of Education, the state’s high school graduation rate was 83.5 percent. At a dropout prevention summit this summer, participants were told the state’s graduation rate was 76 percent, above the national average of 69 percent.

No matter how the rate is calculated or what figures are cited, too few Maine students are completing high school. The graduation rate in 2007-08, as reported on the education department’s Web site, fluctuated by county and by school, from a high of 100 percent in Easton, North Haven, Jackman and Islesboro to lows of 65 percent in Anson, 68 percent in Lewiston and 70 percent in Jay.

In essence, the state is losing 3,000 students per year, says Sen. Justin Alfond. Because these students will not reach their full potential, their job prospects are dim, they are more likely to be in trouble with the law, they will be less likely to contribute to their communities, and many will cost the state in the future.

For these reasons, the Portland Democrat is the sponsor of LD 1658, which would require that 90 percent of the state’s students graduate from high school by the 2015-16 school year. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for this morning before the Legislature’s Education Committee.

The chief justice of the Maine Supreme Court, Leigh Saufley, set the same target as part of a juvenile justice task force last year. “Maine cannot afford to lose one more of its young people to prison and jails, to homelessness, to hopelessness,” Chief Justice Saufley said in December.

Ninety percent was also the target talked about at the dropout summit.

In addition to raising the graduation rate, the bill would set up a committee to develop uniform standards for measuring graduation rates, and the closely related dropout rate. Having agreement on the measurement is an important step in raising the standard.

The committee would also analyze efforts to prevent dropouts and to increase graduation rates in Maine and other states and recommend programs that work. The challenge, says Sen. Alfond, is to ensure the focus remains on the big picture rather than to work on smaller problems that may be easier to fix.

Having so many students quit school isn’t just an educational problem, it holds back the state’s economy and weakens communities. Setting a firm graduation target and identifying the best ways to get there are overdue steps forward.

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