Georgia high school graduation rates jump in 2015

Georgia’s 2015 graduation rate grew 6 percentage points from the prior year to 78.8 percent, an all-time high under the most recent way of counting those who earned diplomas.

School officials say they raised the rates using new data systems to identify struggling kids early and then intervene the old-fashioned way, by talking to them and getting them help.

The graduation rate also got a bump as the state phased out the Georgia High School Graduation Test, which was an obstacle for thousands of students. It was retired in March under a new law. Also, schools say they have optimized the way the way they calculate graduation rates under a 2011 federal formula.

“Districts have gotten much, much better with their record keeping, so their data is much cleaner,” said Matt Cardoza from the state Department of Education. He said the rising rates were influenced by the elimination of the graduation tests and better familiarity with the 2011 federal formula. But he said more attention to students, with the help of better data about everything from attendance to classroom performance, also likely played a role.

“I don’t think you can attribute the bump to any one thing,” he said.

Some school districts posted much larger gains than the overall state average. Atlanta Public Schools had a 12.4 percentage point increase, with 71.5 percent of students earning a diploma. Close behind was DeKalb County, with an 8.6 percentage point increase and a graduation rate a hair lower than Atlanta’s.

Atlanta officials estimate the elimination of the graduation test was responsible for about half of their improvement. Also, at some schools, counselors used social media to find students who had stopped coming to school, associate superintendent Timothy Gadson said. Staff also put up “wanted” posters to enlist help finding students who weren’t in class. Every high school offered credit-recovery courses during the school day, rather than only after school or on weekends.

DeKalb Superintendent Stephen Green, hired over the summer, said some things put in place before his arrival helped improve his district’s rate. Like APS, DeKalb has gotten efficient at tracking transfer students, which could have been counted as dropouts under the 2011 federal formula.

Prior to 2011, schools could delete students who left from their graduation rate calculations. But under federal rules established that year, schools had to track students who left the district, counting them as dropouts unless there was proof they had enrolled elsewhere. DeKalb now has a team of eight people responsible for tracking students who stop coming to school, Green said.

DeKalb monitors student data, watching for sudden drops in grades and in extracurricular participation or for increases in absenteeism — signs of a crisis at home and of academic “drift.” Parents are warned when remediation is needed, and students can take online credit-recovery programs. There are “transition specialists” on staff in low-performing high schools to work with kids who need guidance.

“You have to be in touch with your data and you have to have a system for following up,” Green said.

Some districts have maximized their graduation rates and are struggling to keep them there. In Fannin County, 92.3 percent graduated in 2014 and the rate slid slightly to 92.1 last spring.

Tiffany Roath, a substitute teacher and frequent volunteer in the schools, saw increasing intervention with kids who were struggling. Roath, whose own daughter graduated with the class of 2015 and attends college now, said the district gave children access to online courses and nighttime classes if they fell behind. The district also stayed on top of kids who weren’t showing up, said Roath.

“They are crazy here about attendance,” she said. “You get people knocking on your door if you’ve missed two or three days of school. I think that’s a big part of it.”

Ernie Lee, a high school teacher in Savannah, attributed the gains to harder work by teachers who are feeling pressure to perform. He also credited the gradual recovery of the state education budget. Years of cuts have pushed up the number of students per classroom — and the workload on teachers. With more money going back to the budget, that pressure has relaxed somewhat, said Lee, who teaches history at Windsor Forest High School.

“I’m a good teacher, but it’s hard to teach 35 to 40 students in a classroom built for 30,” said Lee, Georgia’s teacher of the year. “If you’ve got teachers that aren’t stressed out, then, yeah, they’re going to do better at teaching.”

Still, one in five Georgia high school students who went to one of the state’s public colleges — nearly 10,000 students — required remedial courses upon arrival in 2013, according to figures provided by the Georgia Department of Education.

“We should be more transparent about remediation data in Georgia and across the country,” said Alissa Peltzman, vice president of the education group Achieve, in Washington, D.C. “In Georgia and beyond there is evidence that too many students are not prepared.”

Even so, the group, which advocates for higher academic standards, rates Georgia highly among the states. Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released the state-by-state graduation rates for 2014. Georgia ranked sixth from the bottom, and observers say the state’s relatively rigorous graduation requirements are among the reasons.

For instance, Iowa had the highest graduation rate in 2014, a full 18 percentage points above Georgia’s, but Iowa students had to pass four units of English, and three each of math and science. Georgia students, by comparison, must pass four units of each — more than all surrounding Southern states. Also, unlike in most states, a Georgia diploma means the student met “college- and career-ready” expectations in those three core areas, according to Achieve. All but three other states and the District of Columbia lack such a mandate.

Peltzman attributed some of Georgia’s improving rates to work by the state’s university and technical college systems and state business leaders to align the K-12 curriculum with college and employer needs.

“That puts Georgia ahead of many other states,” Peltzman said.

Despite the improvement in the statewide rate, tens of thousands of Georgia students who should have earned a diploma failed to do so, reducing their prospects in the job market. There were 143,941 freshmen who enrolled in 2011 and more than 26,000 didn’t graduate within four years.

“A lot of studies show that kids who don’t graduate end up on the streets, and in our juvenile justice system, and end up in our prisons,” said Tony Lowden, who works on prison reform issues for Gov. Nathan Deal and is a board member on the State Charter Schools Commission. “Even though this increase sounds great, we’ve got to do more. … If these kids don’t get their high school diploma, there’s a chance that we’re going to be spending more on them in the prison system later.”

Molly Bloom and Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

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