New federal calculation shows Georgia graduation rates near bottom of U.S.

It wasn’t much, but Georgia education officials could always puff their chests and point to other Southern states where graduation rates are lower.

No more.

The U.S. Department of Education released state-by-state graduation rates Monday using a new, more rigorous formula for the 2010-2011 school year. Georgia’s four-year graduation rate was 67 percent — lower than every other state except Nevada and New Mexico. And far lower than the graduation rates of Mississippi (75 percent) or Alabama (72 percent).

Georgia’s new graduation rate is much lower than the nearly 81 percent rate state officials had touted in the past.

Eugene Walker, school board chairman in DeKalb County, the third largest school system in Georgia, was disturbed by the state’s ranking.

“That’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “It always surprises me when Georgia is lower than Mississippi and Alabama in anything. It not only surprises me, it disappoints me because we’re much more forward-looking.”

The new, lower rate is not surprising to state education officials, who knew the U.S. Department of Education was looking for a way to more accurately account for students who drop out or do not earn a high school diploma.

The new calculation also produced lower rates because it is a four-year rate. Before the new calculation was used, there was no state-by-state uniformity in how graduation rates were determined. Some states based their rates on a a five-year time period.

“We have to make school more relevant for all of our students,” Georgia Superintendent John Barge said. “We know that most students who drop out do so because they say they find high school unrelentingly boring and irrelevant.”

Barge said a new career-pathway initiative will encourage more student engagement and increase desire to stay in school.

“There is a certain shock factor” in the new ranking “because our previous governor and previous state school superintendent made a habit of traveling around the state trumpeting inflated graduation rates based on misleading calculations,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “Now that we are calculating the rate more accurately, the scope of the problem becomes evident.”

Callahan said part of the problem is the more than $5 billion that has been cut from public education over the past decade, which has led to teacher furloughs, increased class sizes and shortened school years.

Others disagreed, however, saying the problems are more nuanced.

Walker said he thinks there are numerous causes, from poverty to a history of “social promotion” – passing kids along from grade to grade until they are old enough to drop out. He said parents and administrators must shoulder the blame and it mainly boils down to values.

“We’ve got to turn the TV off,” he said.

Fran Millar, who chairs the Georgia Senate’s Education and Youth Committee, said the state’s recent emphasis on career options that don’t require a four-year college degree will have a positive effect on future graduation rates.

The high number of college dropouts was one indication that a new “career-readiness” track was needed, said Millar, R-Dunwoody. Some students just aren’t suited for the traditional academic path, and a lack of options probably discouraged a lot of high school students, he said. Now, Georgia is focusing more on technical colleges and other career tracks. “Down the road, I think we’ll improve because we’re giving kids other options,” Millar said.

Donna Kosicki, president of the Georgia PTA, said she knew the new federal calculation would lead to lower graduation rates. But she said she is encouraged because the state’s new curriculum should help turn things around.

“I am excited that we’re going to see that 67 number go up,” she said.

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