FULTON COUNTY, Ga. – The official data was about 12 months in coming, but state education officials finally released the graduation rate for the senior class of 2012 showing the statewide average rose just over 2 percent from the 2011 results.
Close to 70 percent of Georgia students graduated in 2012; up from 67.4 the previous year. In Fulton County, the results were slightly better with an overall graduation rate of 70 percent in 2012.
State education officials said a new way of calculating graduation rates led to the delay in getting information from the more than 160 school districts across the state.
“[We] have a new way of collecting and reporting graduation data for districts, so we needed to give districts time to be sure all their data was correct,” said Dorie Turner Nolt, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Education. “The 2013 graduation rate will be out this fall.”
Georgia’s graduation rate has plummeted in recent years based on a new methodology for calculating the rates. Prior to 2012, school systems used a “leaver rate” method, which looked at the total number of graduates at the end of the school year with no consideration as to when the student entered high school, or how many years it took to get a diploma.
In addition, if a student transferred or withdrew from school, the system would not have to prove the student actually re-enrolled into another school, or whether they dropped out of school. The result, said state officials, is thousands of students who were never accounted for, and just taken off the rolls of schools.
To provide nationwide consistency, the U.S. Department of Education now requires all states to use a “four-year adjusted cohort rate” model. Each student is given a cohort number in their freshman year, and then tracked as they move through high school. If a student withdraws, the home school must track and verify that the student has re-enrolled elsewhere. Without documentation that the student re-enrolled elsewhere, it counts against the school as a drop out.
Using this methodology, Georgia was forced to revise its claims of graduation rates close to 80 percent. In actuality, fewer than 60 percent of students in 2009 graduated in four years, although that number has since risen to close to 70 percent in three years.
State education officials maintain that despite the drop in percentage, Georgia still graduates more students from high schools than ever before.
“I am very pleased that our graduation rate continues to increase, no matter how it is calculated,” said State School Superintendent John Barge. “While our graduation rate is still far too low and we have much progress to be made, we are moving in the right direction.”
Fulton is working toward a 90 percent graduation rate for all seniors.
The graduation rate figures prominently into the five-year strategic plan for the Fulton County School System. Superintendent Robert Avossa said one of the three goals of the plan is a graduation rate of 90 percent by 2017. He noted the system had already “unofficially” calculated the 2012 rate at between 70 and 72 percent, so the “official” report of 71 percent was expected, and figured into the improvement plan.
“This is our foundation year for the strategic plan, and will set the benchmark for our kids [moving forward],” said Avossa, who completed his second year as superintendent this year. “We know a 90 percent graduation rate is a ‘stretch goal,’ but if we didn’t have to stretch to reach it then staff would not react with urgency.”
He added there are very few school systems in the country, especially in metro systems, with a graduation rate of 90 percent, so he acknowledges the bar has been set high.
“It’s great that 71 percent of our students are successfully finishing high school, but that also means more than a quarter of our students are being left behind. That’s not acceptable,” said Avossa.
Recognizing the system must see graduation rate improvements of 3 to 5 percent each year to reach the goal of 90 percent in 2017, initiatives have already been put in place. Avossa pointed to “virtual labs” in each high school that will help seniors who are only a few credits shy of graduation to finish up their coursework.
Avossa said he was at Centennial High School’s graduation and saw 28 students who completed their graduation requirements through the virtual labs and were able to walk with their class at graduation. In all, Fulton County graduated approximately 6,000 students in 2013.