Georgia graduation flattens after years of routine increases

Georgia class of 2021 graduation rates

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Georgia class of 2021 graduation rates

Many have worried that the upheaval caused by COVID-19 was harming students and new numbers showing that the high school graduation rate in Georgia has stalled after an inexorable rise in the last decade has underscored those concerns.

After rising for eight years, Georgia’s high school graduation rate flattened last spring, with the class of 2021 earning diplomas at a marginally lower rate than the class of 2020.

Georgia’s 83.7% rate for 2021 was down a tenth of a percentage point from the previous year.

It’s unclear whether other states are seeing a similar impact to education, but observers say they would not be surprised if they did.

“We know that a lot of students are re-entering the classroom with heightened levels of trauma,” said Matthew Atwell, an expert on graduation rates. Student absenteeism was up and all sorts of test scores have shown that students learned less during the first part of the pandemic than they normally would have. Teachers are burned out, too, he said, with their biggest exodus from the profession ever last year.

It will be years before the federal government collects and publishes all the state graduation rates, but Atwell said the rate in neighboring North Carolina fell 0.7 points.

“I definitely expect the norm to be backsliding across the nation,” said Atwell, co-author of an annual report called “Building A Grad Nation,” the most recent based on the latest federal data, from 2019.

Georgia State school Superintendent Richard Woods applauded the class of 2021′s perseverance.

“Given the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am pleased to see Georgia’s graduation rate holding steady,” Woods said in a written statement Thursday. “Combined with the class of 2021′s increases in ACT and SAT scores, this is an encouraging indicator about the work being done in public schools.”

Georgia’s ACT and SAT scores rose with the class of 2021. The SAT scores rose nationally too, though less than in Georgia. ACT scores dropped nationally. It was an unusual year though, with the number of SAT test takers falling by nearly a third, since many colleges and universities dropped their normal requirement for SAT and ACT scores during the last admission cycle. It’s unclear to what extent the results were affected by the absence of many who would otherwise have taken those tests.

The flattening of Georgia’s graduation rate curve ends a remarkable rise. During the 2010 decade, Georgia’s rate rose 14.5 points, more than double the U.S. average. However, as of 2019, it still lagged the national average by 3.8 points, according to the latest Building A Grad Nation report, which is a collaboration between a coalition of organizations and the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

The 2019 Georgia average masks the lower performance of some groups. Black and Hispanic students graduated at a lower rate than white and Asian students. The graduation rate for students with learning disabilities was a fifth lower than for those without. Students from low-income households graduated at nearly 5 points below the state average.

Matthew Smith, senior policy analyst for the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, worries about how students in poverty faired in Georgia’s new 2021 class data. Georgia may never know, he said, because the U.S. Department of Education allowed states to give free meals to all students during the pandemic last school year, eliminating the need for families to fill out income statements.

The Georgia Department of Education included a disclaimer in its graduation rate report Thursday, saying the change to the free and reduced price breakfast and lunch programs may have resulted in an artificially low poverty count.

Several metro Atlanta school districts touted an increase in their graduation rate, but Ken Zeff, the former Fulton County superintendent of schools who now heads the group Learn4Life Metro Atlanta, said the average rate across the eight core Atlanta area school districts he follows was 82.9%, the same as last year.

Zeff was more concerned about the underlying impact of the pandemic based on other measures. Fewer graduates went to college nationally, and in metro Atlanta fewer than normal filled out the FAFSA, the federal form used by colleges to award financial aid, an indication that fewer Atlanta graduates sought out college, too, Zeff said.

Stephen Pruitt, the former Kentucky education commissioner who now leads the Southern Regional Education Board, wonders whether the graduation rate truly reflects what students learned during the pandemic. Were they shuffled into easier classes, say physical science rather than physics, just to pass them through?

“People find ways to get kids to graduate whether or not they’re actually ready for the next stage in life,” he said.

Georgia Graduation Rates – 2012 to 2021

2021 – 83.7%

2020 – 83.8%

2019 – 82.0%

2018 – 81.6%

2017 – 80.6%

2016 – 79.4%

2015 – 79.0%

2014 – 72.6%

2013 – 71.8%

2012 – 69.7%

Source: Georgia Department of Education