The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Sunday that after an open records request, it was found that 30,751 students in the class of 2011 left high school without a diploma as opposed to the 15,590 that had originally been reported.
The drastic drop in graduation rates across the state of Georgia did not come as a result of schools reporting fraudulent data, but rather came about from a new federal requirement that regulates all schools throughout the United States to report graduation rates under one, consistent formula.
“Prior to 2012, there were three ways that states could calculate graduation rates,” said Scarlet Brown, Valdosta City Schools head of teaching and learning. “The federal government got involved and wanted a consistent rate.”
Beginning with the graduating class of 2002, Georgia’s calculation rate was based on the Leaver Rate formula — one of the three federally allowed high school graduation rate formulas since No Child Left Behind in 2001.
The Leaver Rate defined regular diploma recipients as a percent of students leaving high school over a four-year period (calculated as the sum of diploma recipients and dropouts during the past four years in grades nine through twelfth). The graduation rate was equated to the number of diplomas divided by the number of regular diplomas plus the number of special-education diplomas plus the number of certificates of attendance plus the number of dropouts in the twelfth grade (current year), eleventh grade (current year minus one), tenth grade (current year minus two) and ninth grade (current year minus three).
“Under the old rate, the student was counted when he received his diploma,” said Rodney Green, Lowndes County Schools assistant superintendent.
Now, Georgia and all other states are required to use the Cohort Graduation Rate which is the number of students who graduated with a regular education diploma divided by the number of students enrolling in the ninth grade for the first time, plus the students who joined the cohort rate (transferred in), minus the students who left the Cohort Rate (transferred out).
Essentially, the new Cohort Rate attempts to hold public schools to a higher standard while at the same time isolating an entire population of students who are not considered the federal government’s definition of “average.”
Under the new formula, students who graduate in five years and even students who graduate in four years and one summer semester will not be counted because they did not receive their diplomas in the “traditional” four-year slot of time.
“We have a lot of kids that need more than four years to finish course work,” said Brown.
Initial media reports suggested that public schools in Georgia were performing worse, but Tara N. Tucci, a senior research and policy associate at the Washington-based advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education, stated, “it’s important that it gets out that these drops aren’t the result of a state doing worse. Now we have a more accurate picture.”
The new four-year adjusted Cohort Rate defines the cohort based on when a student first becomes a freshman. The rate is calculated using the number of students who graduate within four years and includes adjustments for student transfers, but not adjustments for a number of other reasons that are counted as a dropout which includes: Marriage, expulsion, financial hardship/job related, incarcerated, low grades/school failures, military/student enlisted in military, adult education/post secondary, pregnant/parent, removed for lack of attendance, serious illness/accident and unknown.
In contrast, Georgia’s current graduation rate calculation defines the cohort upon graduation, which may include students who take more than four years to graduate from high school. During the past five years, the state’s traditional graduation rate has gradually increased, rising from 70.8 percent in 2006 to 80.9 percent in 2011, as stated by a press release from the Georgia Department of Education in April of this year, which brings about another point of contention.
The Times reported on the new Cohort Rate in April; however, various media reports have presented the information as if it were new.
“This data was actually released in April,” said Brown. “And shared with stakeholders.”
This had led various school officials to speculate the timing.
“I find it interesting it came out just before the Charter School Amendment was to hit the ballot,” said Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Cason.
“A lot of the powers that be at the state level have got their wagons hitched to the charter school amendment,” said Lowndes County Board of Education member Fred Wetherington.
At the federal level, the new rate is explained as giving consistency across all of the public schools in the United States and it is the rate that has to legally be reported to the media. However, the new rate will not be used to determine funding or accountability.
“It has to be reported but it’s not going to be held for accountability,” said Brown.
Instead, the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI) — which uses a five-year extended cohort graduation rate — will be used for accountability purposes and in addition to 19 items will also have additional “points” that can be earned through supplemental indicators.
“They are going to release an index score for every school in the state,” said Brown.
CCRPI will give each school a score on a 0-100 scale. As CCRPI will be the standard which all schools will be held accountable (not the new four-year Cohort Rate) it will also be the standard that dictates state and federal funding.
Even though the new Cohort Rate serves no purpose other than consistency amongst media reporting, Wetherington stated it has the potential of affecting the type of businesses and industries that look at Valdosta and Lowndes County.
Both the city and the county school systems emphasized that as far as graduation rates are concerned, more can always be accomplished.
“We were not satisfied with where our rate was under the old formula,” said Green. “I don’t think our game plan is going to change. It’s just going to intensify.”
Wetherington also stated that contention towards the new four-year Cohort Rate was by no means an excuse.
“None of us sitting around this table are satisfied with where we are,” said Wetherington.
Lowndes High School Principal Jaybez “Jay” Floyd also pointed out how some numbers could be deceiving. For example, if there are 100 students and 15 of those students are special-education students who do not graduate in the traditional four-year period, then a “100 percent” graduation rate for that year would in fact be 85 percent.
Floyd recognizes that work needs to be done in regards to the graduation rate and also stated that the school has several initiatives that will help tackle the goal from different angles.
“We have some great goals to help out our graduation rate,” said Floyd.
Both the county and the city schools will have to make improvements to student tracking, attendance, school policy and more.
“The regular American school house . . . we’ve got to get that fixed. We’ve got to address that model,” said Wetherington. “You better fix the model that has their doors open to everyone.”
Valdosta City Schools: New Cohort Graduation Rate, 54.71 percent
Old Leaver Graduation Rate, 71.7 percent
Difference, 16.99 percent
Lowndes County Schools: New Cohort Graduation Rate, 66.47 percent
Old Leaver Graduation Rate, 81.2 percent
Difference, 14.73 percent