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Spike in Baltimore City graduation rate questioned: Are the numbers being inflated?

Baltimore City Schools’ graduation rate is now at a decades high, with students from nearly every background and demographic earning more diplomas.

BALTIMORE (WBFF) -- Baltimore City Schools’ graduation rate is now at a decades high, with students from nearly every background and demographic earning more diplomas.

But Project Baltimore, Fox45’s long-term investigation into Baltimore area schools, dug deep into the numbers and found there’s questions about how those kids are graduating.

The graduation rate for Baltimore City Schools has spiked since 2010, from 61 percent to nearly 71 percent. But our investigation found there’s a growing number of city students who cannot pass the tests needed to graduate, so they’re earning their diploma another way.

In Maryland, there are two ways to graduate. The traditional way of earning credits and passing tests or the Bridge Plan. Bridge started in 2007, and according to the Department of Education, it was intended for students with disabilities, test anxiety and English Language Learners. It’s not a test, but rather a project that students complete to get a diploma. Our investigation found Bridge has become more popular in city schools -- which has some deeply concerned.

“It is alarming,” says Former City Council member Carl Stokes, now CEO of Banneker Blake Charter School. “It degrades the diploma.”

But Baltimore City Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Sean Conley disagrees. “That is not lowering the standards,” Conley says.

In 2009, 20 percent of Baltimore City High School graduates used The Bridge Plan. By 2015, it jumped to 37 percent. Neighboring Districts are between 4 and 13 percent, and the state average is around 10 percent. We found one school, Renaissance Academy, that now graduates 73 percent of its students through Bridge. Just three years ago, it was 16 percent.

We asked Conley if the school district is pushing children through Bridge to increase its graduation rates.

“I don’t know if I would consider it pushing kids through,” Conley says. “I look at it as how do we identify students? How do we support them? We know in the long term, if we want our students to be successful, they must obtain a high school diploma.”

But Stokes says Bridge was intended for a limited number of students, not 37 percent. “I certainly believe they are using Bridge, yes, to inflate the graduation rates,” Stokes says. “What the school system is telling us is that they are doing a very, very poor job of educating students, academically. And they are not prepared to get their diploma the standard way.”

Overall fewer city students are going to college. We learned from 2013 to 2015, as Bridge graduates increased by five percent, the number of students enrolled in college fell by the same amount.

“We don’t have just one type of child. One type of student,” Conley says, “Our goal, the reason we become educators, is to, whoever is in front of you, meet their needs.”

Conley told Fox45 that his staff is looking into the increase Project Baltimore discovered, but until he learns what is causing it, he’s not alarmed because the program has its benefits.

“It’s a way for them to demonstrate their knowledge in a different way,” he says, “What do I know? How do I know it?”

The Bridge program does meet state graduation standards. In order to wear the cap and gown, a Bridge student must complete the regular coursework just like any other student. The difference is they don’t take a test at the end. Instead, they complete a project which can be amended until it passes.

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