Opinion: Let’s pause before cheering Georgia’s high school graduation rate

An elated Georgia Department of Education announced last week that the four-year high school graduation rate inched up to 84.4% from 84.1% the prior year. While the increase wasn’t large, the 2023 rate still represented a historic high since the state began calculating graduation rates to a federal standard in 2011.

“Every data point represents an actual student and new opportunities that have opened up for their future,” said State School Superintendent Richard Woods in an enthusiastic statement about the new graduation numbers.

The question is whether those data points could represent something less commendable — a lowering of standards and a resignation that COVID-19 caused learning gaps that just couldn’t be closed without dramatic interventions. Many families yearned to resume normal school schedules, afternoon soccer practice and weekends at grandmom’s house. They didn’t want to return to academic boot camps that extended the school day, commandeered Saturday mornings and ate up the summer break.

Other troubling data trends lead to legitimate skepticism toward rising graduation rates. Let’s start with the surge in chronic absenteeism, defined generally as missing 18 or more days of school a year.

A national report released Thursday by the nonprofit Attendance Works and Johns Hopkins University researchers shows a surge in chronic absenteeism in U.S. schools. According to federal data, the percent of high schools with 30% or more of students missing 18 days or more jumped from 31% in 2017-2018 to 56% in 2021-2022. Georgia’s overall chronic absentee rate rose from 14.2% in 2019 prior to the pandemic to 26.8% three years later, after COVID-19 upended schools. Yet, so many more students missing so many more school days apparently didn’t dampen graduation rates.

And there is the question of the academic declines. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed American students lost historic ground in basic math and literacy skills during the pandemic, leading to calls for a fifth year of high school or a year at a community college to prepare teens for college rigor. Neither parents nor high school students were keen on those remedies. The pandemic had already denied them many rituals and touchstones of middle and high school; they weren’t eager to delay their college experience.

When “no fail” policies were introduced during the worst of COVID-19, school leaders described it as extending grace amid a global pandemic that killed more than a million Americans. Those generous and accommodating grading policies remain in many districts because students returned with lagging academic and social agility, and schools realized the return to normal would be a slow climb rather than a rapid ascent.

The dilemma now is that parents see good report cards and conclude their kids are fine and without need of tutoring or summer school. Parents and kids are accustomed to B being the new C. A recent study by the ACT college testing company found more students making A’s and fewer receiving B and C grades.

Teachers are now lamenting grading policies that essentially allow students to redo assignments and tests at any time to bring up a failing grade or improve an imperfect one. Teachers describe relying on Excel spreadsheets to track all the grades and chances students have been given.

Young teachers are flocking to TikTok to complain about middle school students on second grade reading levels and the lack of consequences for tenth graders who just refuse to do the work. A metro Atlanta teacher who declared on TikTok that his seventh graders perform on a fourth grade level garnered nearly a million views and 31,000 “amens” from educators around the country. “They just keep passing them on, passing them on, passing them on,” says the teacher. “I can put as many zeros in the grade book as I want to, they are going to move that child to the eighth grade next year.”

The Governor’s Office of Student Achievement tracks outcomes of Georgia high school graduates on several measures, including how many had to take remedial classes after high school. The latest data is from the class of 2021, which counted 110,800 grads, 59.4% of whom enrolled in a college or technical school. Twenty percent required remedial math when they got there, compared to 16.8% in 2018.

Last week, the ACT released college readiness benchmarks for the graduating high school class of 2023, who were freshmen when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. More than 4 in 10 seniors met none of the benchmarks, while 70% lacked college readiness for mathematics. The ACT College Readiness Benchmarks are the minimum ACT test scores that align with first-year college success.

“We are continuing to see a rise in the number of seniors leaving high school without meeting any of the college readiness benchmarks, even as student GPAs continue to rise and students report that they feel prepared to be successful in college,” said ACT CEO Janet Godwin in a statement. “The hard truth is that we are not doing enough to ensure that graduates are truly ready for postsecondary success in college and career.”