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Congratulations Grad! What Does That Diploma Mean In 2024?

It's June and students and their parents are celebrating a pivotal moment in their lives. High School Graduation.

High School graduation means different things to different people. Aside from the parties and the senior trip to the beach, it can mean ending a long struggle for academic achievement at the most basic level for some students or highest possible level for others. Some students go on to jobs, careers, or more education. Others languish for a few years figuring out what their lives will be. The journey to success or fulfillment doesn't always come in a straight line.

Whatever we think of graduation personally, it does come with a specific expectation in the public education system. When a school system graduates students, they are saying that the student has accomplished basic competencies so he/she can be a productive member of society. In Maryland, graduation requirements vary from district to district:

One interesting thing about these differences is that only nine counties require at least a half credit of "Financial Literacy" a requirement that has been discussed for years in the legislature without passing. I've heard many people say this is something that students need. Of course, now Governor Moore has signed a mandate for "Environmental Literacy."

Apparently, if students can describe climate change that's more important than being able to establish credit, pay bills, and create personal budgets.

The other differences are slight and are usually created based on the priorities of the Boards of Education in each county.

There is ONE fact about graduation that is alarming. Graduation rates in Maryland's school districts reflect a totally different academic picture than actual test data. Let's look at four Maryland school districts and their data for graduation rate and high school standardized test scores for English Language Arts. Algebra 1, Geometry, and Science.

All data can be found at:

Worcester County:

Graduation Rate: 95%

Standardized test scores: English Language Arts (Gr. 10) 72.7% proficient, Algebra 1 (various grades) 27.3%, Geometry (various grades) 22.3%, and Science 49.9%

Howard County:

Graduation Rate: 92.57%

Standardized test scores: English Language Arts (Gr. 10) 64.2% proficient, Algebra 1 (various grades) 38.2%, Geometry (various grades) 71.1%, and Science 48.2%

Baltimore County:

Graduation Rate: 84.99%

Standardized test scores: English Language Arts (Gr. 10) 42.6% proficient, Algebra 1 (various grades) 7.4%, Geometry (various grades) 13.7%, and Science 29.7%

Talbot County:

Graduation Rate: 95%

Standardized test scores: English Language Arts (Gr. 10) 54.7% proficient, Algebra 1 (various grades) 13.9%, Geometry (various grades)5.0%, and Science 23.3%

As you look over this data, you can spot so many discrepancies. We included both Algebra 1 and Geometry in math data because as any math teacher will tell you, they are completely different disciplines and some students who do well in one don't do well in the other.

All data was from high school testing since that is closest to graduation and accurately reflects the cumulative results of years in the school system.

The most alarming discrepancy is the comparison between graduation rate and test scores. For example, Talbot County boasts a 95% graduation rate. How can that be when only 54.7% of grade 10 students are proficient in English Language Arts? Will the other 40.3%* of students become proficient in grades 11 and 12? Possible, but not probable. It's a given that school systems concentrate skill-based instruction during the years of or prior to grade level testing. That means that once that 10th grade ELA exam is over, the focus of 11th and 12th grade English classes shifts. It's likely that teachers will spend more time in the Junior and Senior years focusing on literature and research-based writing with the assumption that students have the basic skills they need. Many students complete seat time in these classes without doing or learning much.

When one looks at Howard County, the graduation rate of 92.7% seems to indicate that they are not doing as good a job as Talbot and Worcester. But, when compared to MCAP standardized English Language Arts test scores, the discrepancy between graduation rate and test scores in Howard County (28.3%) is much smaller than Talbot (40.3%), and Baltimore County (42.9%) and slightly more than Worcester (22.3%)

The distance between graduation rate and math and science skills and graduation is frightening in all four counties. The only saving grace is Howard County's geometry scores, the only scores that come close to being respectable when compared to graduation rate. Howard County has always been one of the better systems in the State of Maryland. Is their lower graduation rate because they may hold students to higher standards in order to get that diploma?

The difference in graduation rate and test scores is something the new State Superintendent of Schools Cary Wright is focusing on.

Newly hired State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Carey Wright has announced plans to create a new Accountability Task Force to view and assess disappointing student test scores, and more clearly reconcile school-level grading with student-level proficiency levels.

While she doesn't reference graduation rates specifically, when Wright talks about the difference between school level grading and student level proficiency levels, she is addressing that issue. Since classroom grades determine whether students get class credit and thus graduate, she sees that what is going on in the State's classrooms is not an accurate reflection of real student achievement. In layman's terms, it's called "grade inflation" and it is one of the biggest reasons for the distance between graduation rates and test scores.

Whether her "Accountability Task Force" will solve that problem seems doubtful, since she (and they) are more focused on HOW to report district data, not actually improve it. It's an exercise in messaging, not academics.

So, what is the problem and how can it be solved?

First, we need to take a historical look at graduation rates in the past. Are today's school systems at the same level they have been in the past? How did those graduation rates compare to standardized test scores? We need this longitudinal baseline data to identify if this is actually something new or if it always has been this way.

Second, we need to re-define what it means to "graduate" high school. There is a difference between completing "seat time" for 12 years and actually achieving academically. Sadly, some diplomas represent the former rather than the latter. This is nothing new. Throughout my teaching career, schools bent over backwards to graduate students who may not have met the academic standards. I remember administrations giving students "a break" from actually attending and/or passing a particular class so they could "walk the stage with their peers." Sort of a "participation" trophy mindset.

Even when the State was requiring that students pass different assessments to graduate, there was a failsafe built in that allowed students to pass tests via "special projects." There were entire classes of these students. The system had to get them to graduate. Thankfully, that ended.

As long as school systems are evaluated on graduation rate on its own without comparing that number to test scores, districts will continue to play this game and Superintendents will crow about their "graduation rate." One way to do this is to focus districts on how their graduation rate correlates to their test data in ELA/Math and Science. This would also force more honesty into the classroom as systems would want grades to reflect real academic achievement, not subjective influences that sometimes force teachers to give inflated grades just so a student can pass and graduate.

You can still use graduation rate as a metric, but then also use the difference between the two data sets as well. This will help parents see how accurate graduation rates are and gauge if the children in the school system are actually learning. Maybe this would be considered a school district "data accuracy" score. Systems like Howard County might have a better data accuracy rating than Talbot even if their graduation rate is lower.

There are brighter minds who will certainly figure this out, but the bottom line is that for some students, graduation means real achievement while for others it just means time spent in school, learning or not. If you know anything about Baltimore City, a student could possibly graduate without ever actually attending school. We must communicate the reality of what is happening, not some nice, feel-good story.

So, This June while we congratulate the graduates and their families as they receive their diplomas, we also encourage school systems to make those diplomas more meaningful.

*to equal 95%

Jan Greenhawk, Author

May 31, 2024

Jan Greenhawk is a former teacher and school administrator for over thirty years. She has two grown children and lives with her husband in Maryland. She also spent over twenty-five years coaching/judging gymnastics and coaching women’s softball.

This article was originally featured on the Easton Gazette. 



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