Georgia H.S. Graduation Rate Could Take A Steep 15% Plunge

Mike Klein, GPPF Editor

Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Erroll Davis recently described high school graduation rates as “great works of art.”  Next week the Georgia Department of Education is expected to release new data that will make it seem like the rate fell off a cliff, down perhaps 15 percent.

Also next week, the Southern Regional Education Board will warn policy makers, educators, parents and anyone else who listens that the new national model for tracking students might result in significantly lower graduation rates.  The number will be more honest if not perfect.

SREB’s “Transitioning to the New High School Graduation Rate” will say “some states may see a decline, especially those that have mistakenly counted dropouts as transfers and those that have counted as a graduate a student who earned a credential other than a regular diploma.”  SREB is headquartered in Atlanta; it advocates for improvement in K-12 public schools and higher education in 16 southern states, including Georgia.

Nine months ago Governor Sonny Perdue’s office announced the state’s 2010 graduation rate rose to an all-time high at 80.8 percent – up 17 percentage points in seven years.  The governor credited his graduation coach program.  “We did something no other state had even thought of — put a graduation coach in every middle and high school and focused their efforts on students at risk of dropping out,” Perdue said.

This was a watershed moment for the outgoing administration because Perdue made an 80 percent graduation rate an important goal of his education initiatives.  The state reported actual graduates grew from 65,213 to some 91,561 seven years later, a real improvement.

A source who is familiar with the anticipated state DOE report indicated the 2011 graduation rate “will likely be at least 15 percentage points lower.”  How does that happen?  Well, that takes us back to how Erroll Davis described graduation rates – “great works of art.”

Georgia and 31 other states have used what education insiders describe as the “Leaver Rate” – defined on the Georgia Governor’s Office of Student Achievement website as “an estimate of the percentage of students who entered ninth grade and graduated four years later.”

Beginning with the 2011-2012 school year all states must adopt exactly the same formula that tracks every high school student from ninth grade through graduation or any other result that includes dropouts and GED credentials.  It also requires a better effort documenting transfer students.  It has a name – Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.  Georgia will report it this year.

Actually, the state Department of Education is expected to report two graduation rates … a “Leaver” traditional rate that will be used in the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) calculations and the “Cohort” rate that will become the new standard rate going forward for all states.

“Georgia is reporting its new graduation rate even before the federal regulations take hold requiring states to report the new rates, which reflects well on the state’s leaders,” said SREB communications director Alan Richard.

As the SREB will report next week, “Cohort” will produce more honest results because “it is not an estimate and requires states to follow students from school to school in the state – no longer mistaking students who drop out as transfers.  For years, states have over-reported transfers and under-reported dropouts, which produced inflated graduation rates.”

All students who enter ninth grade in any given year become the new freshman cohort.  Each student will have a unique identifier.  Student progress – or lack of progress – during the next four years will be tracked.  Because each student will have his or her own unique identifier it will be possible to know who graduated, who transferred and to where, and who dropped out.

Besides “Leaver” – the calculation method Georgia has traditionally used – some states have used the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate.  AFGR compares graduates to ninth graders four years earlier and it makes no attempt to account for transfers.  Using the AFGR method, next week SREB will report Georgia’s 2008-2009 graduation rate was 67.8 percent.

Remembering what Erroll Davis said about “great works of art” – there is another method, the Cumulative Promotion Index that tracks how many students advance year-to-year.  Using that method, next week SREB will report Georgia’s 2006-2007 graduation rate was 57.8 percent.

That would mean at least four methods to calculate graduation rates have been in play for several years, and no wonder it causes confusion.  “Because states were allowed to choose among these types, the results were not comparable from state to state,” SREB will report.  “Even states using the same type of calculation did not figure the data the same way.”

Richard at SREB said the new Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate “likely will be the most accurate high school graduation rate yet and is considered by all to be ‘the gold standard.’   We now have the data systems to track more accurately whether students really transfer between schools and districts and states, or whether they leave school entirely.”

SREB’s “Transitioning to the New High School Graduation Rate” will name Georgia among six southern states that use data effectively and seem well-positioned to change how they report graduation rates.  Others are Texas, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland and Virginia.

“Some SREB states expect their graduation rates will drop when they begin reporting the four-year ACGR,” the report says. “Those states need to focus on direct communication with key constituencies and the media to ensure that messages about what has changed are timely, clear and accurate.”

Now we return you to “great works of art” – Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Lady Gaga!

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