Georgia failed to count thousands of high school dropouts

Using data for the Class of 2011, obtained through an open records request, the AJC found that 30,751 students left high school without a diploma, nearly double the 15,590 initially reported.

The discrepancy came to light because this year the federal government made all states use a new, more rigorous method to calculate graduation rates. Under the new formula, the state's graduation rate plunged from 80.9 percent to 67.4 percent, one of the nation's lowest.

Part of the reason for the decline is that the new formula defines a graduate as someone who earns a diploma in four years, though thousands of students take five years or longer. But the AJC's analysis shows — for the first time — how much of the discrepancy stemmed from a failure to accurately measure how many students drop out.

For years, inflated graduation rates helped state and local districts meet political pressures and claim success. But undercounting the number of dropouts did nothing for the kids who quit school unnoticed.

"They spent more time trying to fix the numbers, than they did trying to fix the problem," said Cathy Henson, an advocate for education reform and former state Board of Education chair. "My frustration is that if you're giving people phony data, then they don't understand the magnitude, the urgency of the problem."

Paige Obu said she was asking for help when she abandoned high school in 2004. None came.

Now 24, she regrets leaving and is attending classes at Literacy Action Inc. in Atlanta, hoping to get her GED and land a better-paying job.

"You really can't make any money without an education," said Obu, who has had various cashier jobs since leaving Atlanta's Benjamin E. Mayes High School.

Statistics back her up: In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education found that the median income was $25,000 for a high school dropout and $43,000 for a person with at least a high school diploma or its equivalent, and it didn't matter whether the person was 18 or 67.

The cost to the taxpayer can be high. Dropouts are more likely to spend time in prison and need public assistance at some time in their lives.

In Clayton County, parents were stunned when told local dropout numbers quadrupled under the new formula.

"I'm just blown away by those figures," said Melody Totten, parent of a Clayton County 10th grader and past president of the local PTA council. "The school board should hold the superintendent accountable, and the superintendent, in turn, should hold the schools, principals accountable."

Education experts have long suspected that the state's soaring graduation rate was artificially high, rooted in faulty data.

Under the state's old formula, students who disappeared from a school's rolls were often written off as transfers without evidence that they had landed in another school. In general, students were only counted as dropouts if they formally declared that they were quitting school, something researchers say they seldom do.

The new method takes the opposite tack, counting a student as a dropout unless the district can show that he or she enrolled elsewhere.

For several years, Georgia officials touted improving graduation rates even though warning signs abounded that large numbers of dropouts were being ignored.

Former State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said some districts, under pressure to graduate more high schoolers, might have looked the other way when students left.

"Some of this is catching people who were probably deliberately messing with the system, and some of this is catching what probably is just bad record-keeping," Cox said.

Current schools chief John Barge is more circumspect.

"I can't say that a system was or wasn't fudging the numbers," Barge said in a recent interview. "Do I think there is large-scale people wanting to manipulate the system? I really don't think so."

Faced with some of the worst graduation rates in the nation, former Gov. Sonny Perdue sank millions of dollars into graduation coaches for high schools and later middle schools.

Districts also had pressure under the federal No Child Left Behind law, with Georgia committed to increasing grad rates by 5 percentage points a year until perfection was reached in 2014. Georgia officials cheered when the statewide graduation rate reached 80 percent in 2010. But the celebration has been short lived.

Georgia officials announced in April that the state's grad rate was 13.5 percent points lower under the new formula. They blamed the fall in part on the undercounting of dropouts but said they had no specifics.

"It was pretty easy to game the system until the cohort business came along," said Jim Arnold, superintendent for the city school system in the Southwest Georgia town of Pelham. He was referring to the new formula, called the "cohort."

In metro Atlanta, Clayton County Public Schools saw a huge swing, going from 392 dropouts to 1,584 and from an 80.2 percent to a 51.5 percent grad rate, according to the state's data. Clayton officials had thought they were making headway. Their 2010 grad rate was 81.6 percent, better than the state's 80.8 percent.

Clayton officials believe that at least some of the newly-reported dropouts could have been legitimate transfers, district spokesman Doug Hendrix said. But they also are taking a hard look at strategies to help students graduate. Those include counselors serving as mentors to every child and parent coordinators out in the community, Hendrix said. "It's obvious to us there is some work to be done," he said.

As early as 2009, the AJC reported that some districts were suspected of over-reporting transfers and under-reporting dropouts — two measures that boost graduation rates. In 2010 and 2011, the newspaper reported that thousands of Atlanta Public Schools high school students were taken off the rolls without documentation of where they went, at the same time the district was boasting huge jumps in its grad rate.

The new data shows APS's dropouts increased from 798 6 to 1,544 and its grad rate went from 69.5 percent to 52 percent with the switch to the new formula. APS spokesman Keith Bromery said more accurate numbers put "us in a better position to know what the reality of the situation is for the district." The district is creating an early-warning system that will alert teachers and administrations to signs that a student could be on the path to dropping out, Bromery said.

Throughout metro Atlanta, school district officials point to the difficulty keeping track of students and maintaining reliable data.

"It's going to be something where we all turn into Sherlock Holmes," and we're tracking every lead we can. It basically is a guilty-until-proven-innocent format," Gabe Crerie, principal at Henry County's Eagle's Landing High School, said.

He and his school's grad coaches spent seven hours one day this summer, trying to track down 62 suspected dropouts. They found 33 at other schools, Crerie said.

In Cherokee County, officials considered the old formula suspect 10 years ago, when the state first adopted it. Superintendent Frank Petruzielo issued an edict that school officials document students said to be transferring from the district and to review their dropout data twice a year.

That vigilance paid off: Among metro districts, Cherokee had one of the smaller increases in dropouts — 90 — and its grad rate moved 7.3 percentage points, from 82.1 percent to 74.8 percent.

Robert Balfanz, a national expert on the dropout issue, said many states — including Georgia — felt comfortable with the old formula, which the U.S. Department of Education had approved.

"They also liked the [mostly positive] results, and they were consumed with raising student achievement," said Balfanz, director of the Everybody Graduates Center at John Hopkins University. "They used to give themselves the benefit of the doubt. If a kid left, something good must have happened."

Many other states that switched to the new formula saw grad rates drop, though Georgia had one of the biggest changes.

Cox, the former state school superintendent, said Georgia would have moved to adopt the more rigorous formula sooner but lacked a statewide data system and a unique numerical identifier for each student.

"This notion that somehow we were trying to paint a rosy picture, just doesn't go," she said of herself and Perdue.

Still, flags were raised even then about the accuracy of the rates. Senate education committee chair Fran Millar remembers confronting Cox about three years ago at a public meeting about "false grad rates."

"We were improving year to year, but the leadership was overstating the results," Millar said.

The impact stretches far beyond the classroom, harming the state's ability to attract new business.

Kelly McCutchen, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, called the grad rate "perhaps the most important economic development issue for the state because it fuels a low perception of our K-12 system."

With the new formula, two cities that frequently compete against Atlanta for business look better: Charlotte's school system graduated 73.5 percent of its high schoolers and Dallas 77.3 percent.

Barge, the state superintendent, said he hopes the grad rate will improve now that Georgia has a waiver from No Child Left Behind and will soon allow students to take some classes that fit their career interests.

"The goal for the longest time was just to get them across the stage to get that diploma — regardless of what it took to get them there," he said. "We didn't make education relevant for them. They only have to stay in school until 16, and when they don't see the relevance at 16, they're going to bolt — at least some of them."

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