Georgia graduation rate: Thank goodness for Alaska

If tracking graduation rates were like watching a foot race, Georgia’s public schools would be seen throwing their elbows and edging forward — but in the back of the pack and at a snail’s pace.

The 72.5 percent rate for the class of 2014, reported by the Georgia Department of Education last year, got some context this week when the U.S. Department of Education released numbers for all states. The slight increase in Georgia’s four-year graduation rate meant it inched up one step, to sixth from the bottom, besting Alaska and clinging to a tenuous lead over the District of Columbia, New Mexico, Nevada and Oregon.

Iowa, chugging along in first place, graduated 90.5 percent of the class of 2014.

Georgia school Superintendent Richard Woods attributed the low ranking in part to rigorous graduation requirements. “While it is not an excuse, Georgia does have some of the highest expectations for students to get a high school diploma,” he said in an emailed statement from a spokesman. To further increase the rates, he said, the state should make sure youngsters can read on grade level and allow more flexibility in core class requirements.

Dana Rickman, director of policy and research at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, concurred about the state’s high standards and said the graduation rates are not useful for interstate comparisons. Georgia requires four years of math and science, for instance, while Alabama, with a higher grad rate, requires only two of each. The data are more useful for tracking performance within each state over time, she said by email.

Georgia saw a sharp decline in 2011 when it began using the federally mandated “adjusted cohort rate” to calculate its graduation rate. The method counts the group of students that started together as freshmen and completed high school within four years.

The numbers have been crawling up since then in Georgia, and across the country.

In February, the U.S. Department of Education touted the highest national graduation rate to date under the new counting method when it hit 81 percent with the class of 2013.

Among Georgia’s demographic groups, Asians and Pacific islanders had the best results in 2014, with an 82.8 percent rate, up a full percentage point from the prior year. Whites had the next best showing at 79.7 percent, up half a percentage point. Blacks were up more than half a percentage point from 64.4 to 65.2.

The rate for Hispanics rose to 64 percent, up from 62.6 percent the year before, but remained near the bottom nationally. Only kids from low income households went backward. Their graduation rate dropped nearly a percentage point, to 62.5 percent — the third worst in the nation.

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