Graduation rates rose, and fell, in metro Atlanta

Graduation rates rose in some metro Atlanta school districts, and fell in others. Overall, the rate for the class of 2021, which spent all of senior year in a pandemic, changed little from the year before, after climbing for nearly a decade. (AJC file photo)
Graduation rates rose in some metro Atlanta school districts, and fell in others. Overall, the rate for the class of 2021, which spent all of senior year in a pandemic, changed little from the year before, after climbing for nearly a decade. (AJC file photo)

Visitors to the Cobb County School District’s website Thursday were treated to great news.

“Cobb educators’ commitment to student success helped students in the Cobb County School District graduate at a higher rate than their Georgia peers in 2021,” an official public statement about new graduation rates proclaimed. In big white numbers on a bright red background is the rate for the class of 2021: 87.2%.

The district said its graduation rate was 5.7 percentage points higher than in 2015. The announcement, though, did not provide the full picture. The districtwide graduation rate actually fell 1.4 percentage points last spring, from 88.6% in 2020.

Graduation rate figures released by the Georgia Department of Education Thursday show the statewide rate barely budged. It was the first time in nearly a decade that Georgia’s “4-year adjusted cohort” graduation rate — meaning the rate of students graduating on time — didn’t rise.

Metro Atlanta mirrored that flattening trend overall, an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. In 11 school districts in and around the city, including a couple of the fast-growing northern exurbs, the collective rate rose by a tenth of a percentage point, from 84.4% in 2020 to 84.5% in 2021.

Some districts did better than others though.

The biggest gainer was Buford City Schools, with a 3.1 percentage point increase.

But Buford’s outsized success didn’t have a significant impact on overall rates. The system is tucked into the far larger Gwinnett County and had a senior class of only 364 students, compared with Gwinnett’s 14,255. The Gwinnett County School District’s graduation rate, meanwhile, fell nearly a percentage point to 82.5%, more than counterbalancing Buford’s success.

Marietta, Atlanta, Fulton County and Decatur also saw significant gains. The rates in Cherokee and Forsyth counties rose as well, but only by half a percentage point or less.

ExploreAtlanta high school graduation rates increase for class of 2021

None of the metro districts had declines over 1 percentage point, except for Cobb, the district with the public messaging about great rates.

Gwinnett was straightforward in its public announcement about the drop in its 4-year rate. It did note, though, that its 5-year graduation rate — for students who take an extra year — had risen.

Throughout the pandemic, observers worried about whether students with disabilities were being educated.

Their graduation rates tell a promising story: Atlanta, Buford and Decatur saw big gains with students with a disability. Buford notched a 13 percentage-point increase. Decatur was up by 11 percentage points and Atlanta rose by 9.

DeKalb, which has more students than those three districts combined, had a 3 percentage point gain among students with a disability.

However, the rate for those students in Gwinnett, the largest district in the state, fell 3 percentage points and it was down by 1 point in Cobb, the second largest district.

The performance by race varied. In Clayton County, with a largely Black enrollment, the white and Black graduation rates fell, but the rate for white students fell more. In Cobb, where there are slightly more white students than Black, the rate for both fell, but it fell more for Black students.

What these data probably do not accurately report is the numbers for the most at-risk group: kids in poverty.

The state included a disclaimer with its graduation rates release Thursday, saying the 2021 count of “economically disadvantaged” students might be artificially low due to the way family income information was collected during the pandemic.

ExploreGeorgia graduation flattens after years of routine increases

Groups such as the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, which advocates for low-income students and students of color, worry about the toll of the pandemic on the most vulnerable students.

They were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, said Max Altman, the group’s research and policy director. “It had a negative effect on academic growth, especially on math and reading. It had a negative effect on technology access. Many students of color and students from low-income families did not have technology,” Altman said.

That would have been a major obstacle for them while they were trying to learn at home, he said.

How metro Atlanta graduation rates changed from 2020 to 2021

District: percentage point increase or decrease

Atlanta: 2.9

Buford: 3.1

Cherokee County: 0.5

Decatur: 1.9

Clayton County: -0.6

Cobb County: -1.4

DeKalb County: -0.6

Forsyth County: 0.3

Fulton County: 2.3

Gwinnett County: -0.8

Marietta: 3.0

SOURCE: AJC analysis of Georgia Department of Education data