In a front page Sunday investigation, the AJC shares its discovery – learned through open records requests — that 30,751 students in the Class of 2011 left high school without a diploma, nearly double the 15,590 initially reported.
The jarring difference owes to new federal requirements for counting dropouts, requirements that now put the onus on systems to track students who disappear.
I wonder whether schools have the staff to do what one principal described as intense detective work to hunt missing students.
“It’s going to be something where we all turn into Sherlock Holmes,” and we’re tracking every lead we can. It basically is a guilty-until-proven-innocent format,” Gabe Crerie, principal at Henry County’s Eagle’s Landing High School, said. He and his school’s grad coaches spent seven hours one day this summer, trying to track down 62 suspected dropouts. They found 33 at other schools, Crerie said.
The AJC story by reporters Nancy Badertscher and Kelly Guckian notes that Cherokee County officials considered the old formula suspect 10 years ago, when the state first adopted it. Superintendent Frank Petruzielo issued an edict that school officials document students said to be transferring from the district and to review their dropout data twice a year. That vigilance paid off: Among metro districts, Cherokee had one of the smaller increases in dropouts — 90 — and its grad rate moved 7.3 percentage points, from 82.1 percent to 74.8 percent.
I have to point out the obvious here: Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest graduation rates in part because it has one of the nation’s highest child poverty rates. After decades of writing about schools, I am convinced that we can’t deal with one without addressing the other.
Poor children are not a lost cause, but keeping them in school and on grade level requires an unwavering commitment of time, energy and money, and I sometimes wonder whether we have the will in Georgia to make such a commitment.
Please note that Georgia has never done well with low-income students. There is no golden era of education over which to wax nostalgic. The state’s failure to graduate large numbers of high school students was not a problem a generation ago when mill and factory jobs awaited them. In fact, the promise of cheap, ready labor — along with cheap, ready land — was something that Georgia presented as a selling point to new industries.
Now, little awaits a high school dropout. Industry wants educated workers who are able to adapt and learn new skills quickly.
The discrepancy came to light because this year the federal government made all states use a new, more rigorous method to calculate graduation rates. Under the new formula, the state’s graduation rate plunged from 80.9 percent to 67.4 percent, one of the nation’s lowest.
Part of the reason for the decline is that the new formula defines a graduate as someone who earns a diploma in four years, though thousands of students take five years or longer. But the AJC’s analysis shows — for the first time — how much of the discrepancy stemmed from a failure to accurately measure how many students drop out.
For years, inflated graduation rates helped state and local districts meet political pressures and claim success. But undercounting the number of dropouts did nothing for the kids who quit school unnoticed.
“They spent more time trying to fix the numbers, than they did trying to fix the problem,” said Cathy Henson, an advocate for education reform and former state Board of Education chair. “My frustration is that if you’re giving people phony data, then they don’t understand the magnitude, the urgency of the problem.”
The cost to the taxpayer can be high. Dropouts are more likely to spend time in prison and need public assistance at some time in their lives.
In Clayton County, parents were stunned when told local dropout numbers quadrupled under the new formula. “I’m just blown away by those figures,” said Melody Totten, parent of a Clayton County 10th grader and past president of the local PTA council. “The school board should hold the superintendent accountable, and the superintendent, in turn, should hold the schools, principals accountable.”
Education experts have long suspected that the state’s soaring graduation rate was artificially high, rooted in faulty data.
Under the state’s old formula, students who disappeared from a school’s rolls were often written off as transfers without evidence that they had landed in another school. In general, students were only counted as dropouts if they formally declared that they were quitting school, something researchers say they seldom do.
The new method takes the opposite tack, counting a student as a dropout unless the district can show that he or she enrolled elsewhere.
Former State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said some districts, under pressure to graduate more high schoolers, might have looked the other way when students left. “Some of this is catching people who were probably deliberately messing with the system, and some of this is catching what probably is just bad record-keeping,” Cox said.
Current schools chief John Barge is more circumspect. “I can’t say that a system was or wasn’t fudging the numbers,” Barge said in a recent interview. “Do I think there is large-scale people wanting to manipulate the system? I really don’t think so.”
Georgia officials announced in April that the state’s grad rate was 13.5 percent points lower under the new formula. They blamed the fall in part on the undercounting of dropouts but said they had no specifics.
In metro Atlanta, Clayton County Public Schools saw a huge swing, going from 392 dropouts to 1,584 and from an 80.2 percent to a 51.5 percent grad rate, according to the state’s data. Clayton officials had thought they were making headway. Their 2010 grad rate was 81.6 percent, better than the state’s 80.8 percent.
Clayton officials believe that at least some of the newly-reported dropouts could have been legitimate transfers, district spokesman Doug Hendrix said. But they also are taking a hard look at strategies to help students graduate. Those include counselors serving as mentors to every child and parent coordinators out in the community, Hendrix said. “It’s obvious to us there is some work to be done,” he said.
As early as 2009, the AJC reported that some districts were suspected of over-reporting transfers and under-reporting dropouts — two measures that boost graduation rates. In 2010 and 2011, the newspaper reported that thousands of Atlanta Public Schools high school students were taken off the rolls without documentation of where they went, at the same time the district was boasting huge jumps in its grad rate.
The new data shows APS’s dropouts increased from 798 6 to 1,544 and its grad rate went from 69.5 percent to 52 percent with the switch to the new formula. APS spokesman Keith Bromery said more accurate numbers put “us in a better position to know what the reality of the situation is for the district.” The district is creating an early-warning system that will alert teachers and administrations to signs that a student could be on the path to dropping out, Bromery said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog