Students transfer to avoid Georgia graduation test

Every year hundreds of high school seniors in Georgia public schools transfer to private schools just weeks before they are scheduled to graduate, at least some of them motivated by their failure to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test (GHSGT). That test was mandatory for public high school students until 2011 but is now being phased out. The test is not required to graduate from private schools.

An investigation by Channel 2 Action News found that 27 seniors from Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School transferred after May first of this year, and two sources say a school administrator encouraged them to leave. Most of the Jackson seniors transferred to Life Christian Academy, a private school in College Park.

The late transfers have the effect of protecting a school’s graduation rate, a closely watched measure of progress. Bill Caritj, the Chief Accountability Officer for APS, told Channel 2 the transfers of 27 seniors who would not have graduated on time kept Jackson’s graduation rate from falling by 12 percent for the 2013-14 school year.

Caritj said a total of 60 seniors in all APS high schools transferred to private schools after May 1 this year. An APS spokeswoman said that kept the district’s graduation rate from falling by 1.4 percent.

Life Christian Academy is accredited by the Georgia Accrediting Commission, but does not require a standardized test equivalent to the GHSGT. A school official declined to be interviewed for this story.

The parent of one of the transferring students, who declined to provide her name, told Channel 2 that Arlena Edmonds, a Jackson High School graduation coach, encouraged several parents and students to consider transfers in early May.

Andrea Thorpe, one of the 27 students who transferred from Jackson, told Channel 2 that Edmonds “brought up the idea.” Through a spokeswoman, Edmonds declined to comment.

Thorpe said she did not transfer to Life Christian but to another private school she declined to name. However, Channel 2 found Thorpe’s name and those of 20 other students who formerly attended Jackson in the Life Christian commencement program for last spring.

A second parent, who did not provide her name, told Channel 2, “Life is a godsend to a lot of students,” because it allows them to graduate without having to retake the GHSGT. She confirmed the primary issue for her daughter was the test.

The late-year transfers are allowed under Georgia law, and a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education declined to criticize the practice.

But Timothy Gadson, associate superintendent for high schools at APS, told Channel 2, “That is not something we as a district support. We don’t make those kinds of recommendations that in the 11th hour students transfer from a school. I don’t support any student making a move to get out of taking an assessment.”

Gadson declined to say if the district has taken any disciplinary action against the graduation coach at Jackson who encouraged students to transfer.

Gadson said a former senior administrator at APS wrote high school principals a memo or email last spring telling them not to encourage the practice. APS has been unable to recover the memo in response to a request under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Gadson said principals now know it is official policy not to encourage late-year transfers. “It’s a conversation that we’ve had with my high school principals,” he said.

The late-year transfers by seniors are not confined to APS.

Records from the Georgia Department of Education show that a total of 1,003 Georgia students transferred from public to private schools after May 1 of the past three school years. Another 437 transferred in March and April of those years.

School districts in Fulton, Newton, Spalding and Rockdale Counties have also had post-May 1 senior transfers in recent years, but the largest number Channel 2 confirmed at a single school was at APS’s Jackson High.

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Richard Belcher is an investigative reporter for Channel 2 Action News.