April 26, 2018
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Increasing Maine’s graduation rate not enough

By David Silvernail, Special to the BDN

While Maine can take justifiable pride in the fact that more than eight in 10 of our students earn a high school diploma, there is a underlying issue that demands our attention: Only one in three of those graduates is proficient in reading and math, requiring remedial education in the workplace or in college that costs us millions and jeopardizes our ability to prepare students for the Maine workplaces of today and tomorrow.

Today, earning a high school diploma is more important than ever because it provides the gateway to college and many careers. By one estimate, almost 60 percent of the new jobs created in Maine between 2008 and 2018 will require some postsecondary training.

According to the Maine Department of Education, Maine’s high school graduation rate in 2010 was 82.8 percent, which is much better than the national average, but still considerably lower than Vermont and New Hampshire and slightly lower than Massachusetts.

But how many of these graduates are also academically ready for college and career? In other words, what are a student’s chances of both graduating high school on time and being proficient?

Unfortunately, the chances are not great.

A new study conducted by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine indicates it is only about 32 percent. This means that 9th graders who began high school in Maine in 2006-07 had about one chance in three of graduating four years later and being proficient in both reading and mathematics.

Clearly, the evidence indicates that far too many of Maine’s high school students are not graduating prepared for college or careers. Despite this evidence, there is room for optimism when one considers efforts currently underway here in Maine to improve these outcomes.

First, by July 2012, all Maine schools must implement a program called Response to Intervention which should improve learning for all students — particularly those who are struggling — through programs and strategies that provide immediate support when kids begin to veer off track.

Second, Maine has joined 48 other states in adopting the national Common Core Standards and has committed to future implementation of new statewide assessments that are aligned to the standards. These new assessments should better measure the types of skills that are critical to success and will give additional insights into the true college and career readiness.

Third, in June 2011 the Maine Legislature passed, and the governor signed into law, a resolve requiring the Maine Department of Education to develop a plan for implementing a standards-based education system here in Maine. Such a system is designed to measure students’ learning progress in terms of their actual learning rather than simply accumulating time and course credits. And as such, it would go a long way toward ensuring that Maine’s students graduate high school ready for college and careers.

Last, but not least, in the near future there will be a new way struggling schools may learn how to improve.

The overwhelming majority of Maine educators are hardworking, compassionate and knowledgeable professionals who care deeply about the success of their students. Yet much energy and resources are spent on activities that are not based on research evidence about effective practices.

In 2010-11, the Maine Education Policy Research Institute conducted site visits in approximately 20 schools identified as having stronger-than-expected student performance and higher returns on their spending. Very soon the evidence collected will be disseminated to other schools searching for ways to improve.

Clearly, schools need to take steps to improve outcomes for their pupils, and as mentioned above there are some important ways schools, teachers and administrators all across Maine may work together to accomplish this. But it is also evident that they cannot do it alone.

Parents, students and community members must also do their part. We all have a role in preparing Maine’s youth for the 21st century and each of us must take greater responsibility for achieving this goal.

A more complete report of the findings noted here as well as individual profiles of Maine’s high schools may be found at www.usm.maine.edu/cepare/ in the Quick Links section.

David Silvernail is director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine.

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