Nearly a third of all Georgia students fail to finish high school in four years – a fact unveiled Tuesday as states come on board with a new single system for calculating high school graduation rates.
Under the new federally mandated formula, Georgia's 2011 graduation rate has been reset at 67.4 percent. That's well-below the 80 percent graduation rate that the old formula produced -- an accomplishment politicians have pointed to as a bright spot in the state's academic record and a reason for companies to do business in Georgia.
The new calculation means Georgia's graduation rate trails some of its Southern neighbors. In some metro-Atlanta schools, roughly half of freshmen are graduating within four years.
State School Superintendent John Barge said the shift to the new rate may be temporarily disconcerting for local school districts and parents, who view graduation rates as a measure of academic quality. But, in the end, the result should be a more accurate picture of how many students both in Georgia and nationally are graduating from high school on time.
"I believe that in order to tackle a problem you have to have honest and accurate data," Barge said. "We will be able to use this new data as a baseline to see how our important initiatives are impacting graduation rates in the future."
NEW WAY TO COUNT
The new formula requires all states to track each student from ninth grade and to set their school, district and state graduation rates based on how many of those students receive a diploma within four years. It replaces a formula that Georgia has used since 2003 and that critics say undercounted dropouts and was grossly misleading.
The new formula could work against school districts that have put a priority on making sure students receive a high school diploma, even when it takes more than four years, Barge said.
"We should be getting all students a diploma, regardless of time. It would not be a good thing for districts to see a student who is taking longer than four years and decide to write him or her off."
This should be less of a problem for districts next year, when states are allowed to include in their graduation rate calculations the students who receive a diploma in five years, as well as four, the superintendent said.
In Gwinnett County, where the graduation rate dropped from 83.7 percent to 67.56 percent under the new formula, the mandate to count only four-year graduates is a concern, said Sloan Roach, school system spokeswoman.
The state's largest school districtas has focused on making sure most students graduate, Roach said.
"But it takes some longer than the traditional four years," she said, noting that students who do not speak English, special education students and students who are highly mobile and often require more time and work to graduate.
Under the new formula, a student who moves out of a school and cannot be verified as moving out of state or out of country will count against a school's graduation rate.
"These are pieces of the new calculations that we have to consider," Roach said. "But they cannot be excuses. Obviously, there is room for improvement in terms of increasing the graduation rate."
AN EXPECTED DROP
State officials have been predicting that graduation rates would fall under the new federal formula, which creates the opportunity for state-to-state comparisons. Barge warned of a drop to 64 percent in February 2011, less than six months after former Gov. Sonny Perdue was out across the state touting a 2 percentage point increase that pushed the grad rate above 80 percent.
State Senate Education Committee Chair Fran Millar, R-Atlanta, said Tuesday's announcement confirms what he thought for years: that the graduation rate was improving, but also was being overstated by top officials.
"Hopefully, new career options will lead to overall better results," Millar said.
The Department of Education provided rough estimates Tuesday, showing that, under the new formula, the graduation rate would have been 58.6 percent in 2009 and 67.4 percent in 2011, for an increase of 9.2 percent. Under the old formula, in that same period, the gradation rate went from 78.9 percent to 80.9 percent.
Steve Dolinger, a former Fulton County school superintendent and president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, said the new uniform formula will allow for state-to-state and even county-to-county comparisons.
"When we see counties that are doing well, we'll be able to see what their best practices are and share them," Dollinger said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education said data wasn't available Tuesday on how many states have already switched to the new formula. Neighboring South Carolina and North Carolina went to the new formula several years ago and have 73.56 percent and 77.9 percent grad rates, respectively.
In metro Atlanta, some schools saw much wider swings in their graduation rates as a result of the change in formula. They included: Cross Keys in DeKalb County, which went from 85.1 percent to 48.34 percent, Riverdale High School in Clayton, which went from 82.7 percent ot 53.58 percent and Meadowcreek High in Gwinnett, which went from 77.6 percent to 48.54 percent.
At College Park’s Banneker High, among Fulton’s lowest performers, the graduation rate dropped sharply from the 67.3 percent shown on the school’s accountability report for last year to about 42 percent under the new criteria, said Fulton County superintendent Robert Avossa.
“Many of our kids move from school to school to school, and we don’t have an accurate picture of when they graduate,” Avossa said. . “Where you have high populations of kids moving in and out, you are going to have a negative impact on the graduation rate. Certainly, that is no excuse. We can do better and we will do better.”
Explaining the difference
Georgia's graduation rate, under a new federally mandated formula, is 67.4 percent. The state's graduation rate under the old formula was 80 percent.
Four years means four years
Under the old system, which Georgia has used since 2003, schools were able to count students who took more than four years to graduate. Under the new system, the graduation rate is calculated by the number of freshmen who earn a diploma within four years.
Transfers and drop outs
Under the old system, schools counted drop-outs only as those students who had declared their intentions not to return to school. Under the new system, if the school cannot verify that a student who has left the school has transfered to another school then that student is counted as a dropout.
Why is this happening?
The U.S. Department of Education is requiring all states to begin publicly reporting comparable high school graduation rates using its new four-year calculation method. Historically, states have had a variety of methods to calculate their graduation rates, which has crated inconsistent data from one state to the next. This should for the first time allow for true state-to-state comparisons.
Staff writers Aileen Dodd and Pete Corson contributed to this report.
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