Thursday, October 9, 2008

RICHMOND | More than 81 percent of the students in the class of 2008 received a diploma after four years of high school, the Virginia Department of Education said Wednesday in a report that gave a more precise - and higher - figure than previous studies.

State education officials said they were pleased with the overall results but concerned about significantly lower graduation rates in some communities and among black, Hispanic and disadvantaged students statewide.

The report marks the first time Virginia has tracked individual students from year to year to get a precise on-time graduation rate. The previous, less accurate, methodology produced an estimated graduation rate last year of 73.5 percent.

“The fact that better than eight of 10 students in Virginia graduate on time with a diploma is gratifying, given that estimates relied on in the past were much lower,” Board of Education President Mark E. Emblidge said. “But even as we recognize this success we must do more to raise graduation rates, especially in schools serving minority and low-income communities.”

Said Superintendent of Public Instruction Pamela I. Wright: “We are clearly better off than we thought we were, but not as good as we want to be.”

The on-time graduation rates ranged from 56.7 percent in Portsmouth to 97.6 percent in Falls Church in the D.C. suburbs. Neighboring Fairfax County, the largest and one of the most affluent school districts in the state, came in at 91.2 percent.

The report also showed a racial disparity in graduation rates statewide: Asians, 92.9 percent; whites, 85.3 percent; blacks, 72.6 percent; and Hispanics, 70.4 percent. The figures were 69.8 percent for economically disadvantaged students and 68.5 percent for students with limited English proficiency.

Virginia is doing better than most other states, but the racial, economic and geographic differences are troubling, said Angela A. Ciolfi, attorney for a children’s advocacy program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. The data shows white students are earning advanced diplomas at twice the rate of their black classmates, she noted.

“We’re moving certain types of students toward excellence more than others,” she said.

Ms. Ciolfi said education officials should address that problem, direct more resources to the 15 localities that had less than 70 percent on-time graduation rates and make overall improvement in graduation rates a high priority.

Ms. Wright said having accurate data will help officials develop strategies to improve the rates, especially for groups such as minorities that need the most assistance. Most of that work will be done locally, she said, although the state will provide as much support as possible.

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