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New Research Shows Only One in Three Maine Grads Ready for Work or College

PORTLAND – Important new research released today by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine reveals that while more than eight of 10 Maine students graduate from high school in four years, only one in three graduates are ready for work or college.

Increasing high school graduation rates has become a top priority of education public policy, but simply increasing the number of high school graduates is not enough to ensure that graduating students are prepared for work or continuing education.

“Ninth graders who began high school in Maine in 2006 had about one chance in three of both graduating four years later and being proficient in reading and math,” said Dr. David Silvernail, the director of the Center for Education Policy. “The good news is that Maine has begun to take steps to help schools better prepare students. But to fully address the issue, policymakers need to understand the many factors that contribute to the problem.”

Key findings of the study include:

Maine is doing much better than the national average for high school graduation, and better than Rhode Island, but trails Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

While eight of 10 high school freshmen graduate on time, the average hides considerable differences among schools. In 2010, graduation rates ranged from 66 percent to 100 percent.

Statewide, only 39 percent of 2010 high school graduates met proficiency standards in both reading and math during their junior year. 

As with graduation rates, the percent of students meeting proficiency also varies greatly among schools, ranging from 9 percent to 100 percent.

Ninth graders who began high school in Maine in 2006-07 had only about one chance in three of graduating four years later AND being proficient in both reading and math, and those chances vary considerably among schools.

“Graduating seniors are requiring remedial and work-training that is costing their families – and our economy – millions of dollars,” said Silvernail. 

In addition to looking at graduation rates and proficiency, the study also explores variables that impact student proficiency and graduation rates.

While teachers with a master’s degree do not appear to correlate with graduation rates, it does appear to have some effect on proficiency. Poverty also contributes to lower graduation and proficiency rates.

But perhaps the greatest indicator of student proficiency and graduation is evident in elementary school. Sixty-nine percent of students who are not proficient in mathematics in the 3rd grade are still not proficient by fifth grade. The pattern repeats itself throughout elementary, middle and high school. Among eighth graders who are not proficient in math, 88 percent are still not proficient by the end of the 11th grade.

“While there are many factors that contribute to proficiency, including the skill and education level of teachers, students that start out behind in elementary school have a hard time catching up,” said Silvernail. “One strategy to improve proficiency in reading and math at graduation is to make sure students receive a solid foundation in early childhood.”

The study also identifies several public policy initiatives that have the potential to improve both graduation rates and proficiency.

“Despite the discouraging numbers, there is considerable reason for optimism,” Silvernail said. “Efforts are in place to help struggling schools to improve and to increase graduation rates and proficiency.” 

Among other efforts, by July 1, 2012, all schools must have in place a plan to provide both academic and behavioral support to struggling students. In addition, the Maine Education Policy Research Institute is identifying the distinguishing characteristics of higher performing schools with the goal of using the information to help other schools improve.

In addition, Maine is in the process of adopting Common Core Standards and implementing standards-based education, which would require students to demonstrate proficiency before graduating from high school. 

“Maine has great schools, and Maine has schools that need to improve,” Silvernail said. “Understanding the factors that contribute to the difference is the key to making sure all our kids have a chance to be successful.”

A copy of the full report is available at Maine High School Graduation and Proficient Rates .