A longtime poster here has been asking for quite a while that the AJC look at transfer policies in Hall County high schools. The poster alleges that unusual number of high school students transferred at the end of their senior years was a ploy to improve the system’s graduation rate.
The AJC’s Heather Vogell has looked at Hall transfers and she describes a “curious game of musical chairs” in the final days of high school.
(Vogell is part of the AJC investigative team that wrote the original stories questioning improbable CRCT score swings. Those AJC reports led to the state audit and now to the state investigation.)
Please read the entire story as there is lots to consider. The link here will take you to the full story:
On those days, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state data found, at least 94 students transferred at the last minute out of their traditional high schools and into the district’s Lanier Career Academy, a school with special programs for struggling students.
The seniors took with them an academic millstone that could have been a liability for their former schools: Each had earned a certificate of performance instead of a diploma. Only regular diplomas boost graduation rates, which have become a key measure of schools’ success.
The fact that the transfers may have helped some high schools meet federal academic standards has led some to ask whether the schools were simply manipulating the state’s accountability system. On one local blog, a poster wrote that some students felt “bullied” into transferring.
“One student was even told one month before graduation that they would not be able to graduate with their class. This is wrong!” the poster wrote, saying students were told they made their school “look bad.”
The district defends the transfers as a way to help hard-to-reach students. Seniors who change schools, officials said, can participate in graduation ceremonies at either their original school or at Lanier.
Hall, a northeast Georgia district of nearly 26,000 students, isn’t the first school system to face accusations of roster manipulation. In other districts across Georgia and the country, federal and state accountability rules have spawned creative attempts to make the numbers, some of which have involved strategically shuffling students around like pawns on a chessboard. The goal: to show “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP.
“Any time when you put such a complicated ball game together like AYP, it just opens the doors for lots of interpretations,” said Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.
Mathers said her office plans to look this fall at whether districts are misusing state codes related to transferring students. Manipulating the codes can reduce the reported dropouts while artificially raising graduation rates. She said that from what she knows, however, Hall County does not appear to have broken such rules.
An email written in May 2009 by the former principal of Hall’s career academy, which later appeared on local blogs, has incited critics.
“It’s time to look at whether you want to transfer any of your COPs to LCA to improve your graduation rate,” the email to administrators at traditional high schools said. “We’ll be glad to do that for you again if you want us to.”
The plan, according to the email: unenroll students from their schools May 20, re-enroll them in Lanier academy May 21 and graduate them May 22.
By 2010, the flow of May certificate of performance transfers to Lanier had dwindled from dozens to 15. But talk of the moves continued, leaving the district’s superintendent, a close ally of new state Superintendent John Barge, vigorously justifying them.
Superintendent Will Schofield said the vast majority of transfers have been voluntary. District officials sent students to Lanier despite the fact that spring classes were wrapping up, hoping they would take summer courses or pursue GEDs there, he said. Forty eventually earned diplomas, he said.
“It’s not gaming the system,” he said. “We don’t have the financial resources to offer at all our traditional high schools the kinds of programs that we offer at the LCA.”
Barge said Friday that the state will look at Hall’s student data for this school year when it becomes available in July. The state has not performed an analysis similar to the AJC’s for prior years.
Barge said that so far he has been satisfied with explanations from the district. “It’s not like we’re not aware of the situation,” he said. “Based on the information that we have right now from the school system, we’ve not seen any reason for alarm.”
State databases show an unmistakable flow of students from other county schools to Lanier in the waning hours of the 2008 and 2009 spring semesters.
In 2008, three dozen students transferred on May 21 to Lanier. The next year, 43 did so on May 20.
A handful of districts statewide transferred two or three students on a single day in late May during the past three years, data shows, but none came close to moving the number Hall did.
Schofield, the superintendent, said the transfers would have no effect on the district’s graduation rate, which is calculated by counting all graduates. The numbers of transfers, several Hall principals said, were likely also too small to affect the rate for any particular school.
No Child Left Behind, however, mandates that schools calculate more than the overall graduation rate. It requires schools to figure the rate for subgroups of students larger than 40, such as those who are economically disadvantaged or Hispanic.
Because they include just a few dozen, not hundreds, of students, the graduation rates for those subgroups fluctuate more readily.
Missed subgroup targets can cause a school to fail to make AYP in some cases, if students are also struggling academically.
More than half the Lanier transfers — 56 out of 94 — were Hispanic, records show, and likely would have at least dragged down the subgroup’s graduation rate in their schools.
The 2010 census reports 26 percent of Hall County’s 180,000 residents are Hispanic.
State Education Department data reviewed by the AJC does not reveal where the Lanier transfers originated. But blog posts mention Chestatee High, where the graduation rate rose 25 percentage points in three years.
Chestatee principal Chip Underwood said it has comfortably made AYP in recent years and was not in danger of failing. In 2010, it graduated about 200 students. He praised Lanier academy for offering options to those who weren’t on track to earn diplomas.
“We should have done a better job of locating that child earlier in the year where he was not going to be successful,” he said of the late transfers.
The school doesn’t have many, if any, last-minute transfers this year, he said.
East Hall High School principal Jeff Cooper said the transfers were made with the students’ best interests in mind, though a slightly better graduation rate may have been a side benefit.
“I’ve seen a very minimal effect here in my school,” he said, adding that the school may have sent seven or eight transfers to Lanier in a year.
Schofield said the former principal of Lanier “feels terrible” about the email about raising graduation rates for traditional schools.
“All I can say is that was extremely poorly worded,” he said. “The reason students go to the career academy is that they have more opportunities and resources there.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog