Using data for the Class of 2011, obtained through an open records request, the AJC found that 30,751 students left Georgia high schools without a diploma, nearly double the 15,590 initially reported. 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.”
Paige Obu said she was asking for help when she abandoned high school in 2004. None came.
Now 24, she regrets leaving and is attending classes at Literacy Action Inc. in Atlanta, hoping to get her GED and land a better-paying job.
“You really can’t make any money without an education,” said Obu, who has had various cashier jobs since leaving Atlanta’s Benjamin E. Mayes High School.
Statistics back her up: In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education found that the median income was $25,000 for a high school dropout and $43,000 for a person with at least a high school diploma or its equivalent, and it didn’t matter whether the person was 18 or 67.
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…
Read more: AJC