Georgia School Funding Association


The Real Test of Education in Georgia

The simplest and best-understood measure of an “adequate education” is a high school diploma. Amazingly enough, four out of every ten high-school students in Georgia are not receiving a regular diploma. This tragic fact reveals how far the State of Georgia still has to go in meeting its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for all of its citizens, especially those students who are not in the mainstream of our society.

How important is a diploma from high school?

The State of Georgia sets standards for a diploma from high school, including required courses and a passing score on the Georgia High School Graduation Test. It is true that some students who do not finish high school eventually obtain a General Education Diploma (GED), but a GED is not a viable substitute for the full program represented by a regular diploma. By definition, the students who go on to obtain a GED were not able to complete the full course of study in high school or chose not to do so.

Most Georgians consider a high-school education to be the minimum preparation one must have to succeed in the modern workplace. As the nature of our economy changes, this expectation is rising steadily.

Advocates for public education can justly take pride in the significant increase in the percentage of students completing high school for the nation as a whole since the end of World War II, but the importance of a high-school education has increased for both the students themselves and the community at large.

It was possible only a few decades ago to find meaningful employment without a high school education. That is no longer the case. In fact, according to a recent study for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, there will be no growth or substantial declines over the next 20 years in all of the occupations which do not require a high-school education.

The opportunities for our students will be severely limited unless they gain the skills and knowledge they will need in the modern workplace, but there are also serious consequences for economic development in Georgia. Modern companies cannot prosper without a trained workforce. Many of Georgia’s employers already have to import workers from other areas, and companies will not start new operations in areas that lack a trained workforce. This challenge is particularly critical to the rural areas of our state.

Moreover, a low high-school graduation rate means there will be fewer and fewer productive workers to support Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits for an aging adult population. Without trained workers to take their place, many working adults will have to postpone retirement or face a significant decline in their standard of living.

The consequences of not having a high-school education are evident in other ways as well. The U. S. Department of Justice reports that over 80% of the inmates in our nation’s jails and prisons did not finish high school, and without a high-school education it is difficult to perform the basic responsibilities of citizenship such as being an informed juror or voter.

How well is Georgia doing?

Based on the fundamental need for a high-school education, the State of Georgia is failing to provide an adequate education for all of its students. One of the national education goals adopted in 1989 was to increase the high school graduation rate to at least 90 percent by the year 2000. The tragic reality is that Georgia is not even close to meeting this goal.

In the data compiled by the U. S, Department of Education for the 2001-2002 school year, Georgia had a graduation rate of 62%, which was the lowest for any state in the union plus the District of Columbia. Other independent studies conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the Mortenson Research Seminar also rank Georgia at the bottom among all of the states.

It’s one thing to be last in SAT scores. There may be honest differences of opinion about this ranking. But it’s much worse - and non-debatable - to be last among all of the states in the percentage of students who actually graduate from high school.

The so-called graduation rate is bad enough, but it greatly understates the severity of the problem for several reasons, as explained below.

Who are graduates?

In its Report Card for 2001-2002, the last year for which compete data on educational inputs and results are available, the State of Georgia reported that 72% of the students who entered the ninth grade four years earlier “graduated” from high school. Most people would assume that this percentage reflects the number of graduates, but the 72,249 students who completed high school in 2002 included 3,865 students who received Certificates of Attendance and 2,705 students who received Special Education Diplomas.

In other words, 5.3 % of the “graduates” actually received a Certificate of Attendance, which means that they did not pass the relatively easy Georgia High School Graduation Test, and another 3.7 % received Special Education Diplomas for completing a student's Individualized Education Plan. (The comparable percentages in 2003 were 6.1% and 4.0%, respectively.)

If these two categories are excluded, the originally published graduation rate for 2002 would drop from 72% to 66%. Moreover, nearly 30% of the regular diplomas were in technology and career education, which can be less rigorous than a college-preparatory program.

In 2004, the Georgia Department of Education (GDOE) modified the definition of graduates in the report by its Office of Student Achievement on the academic results for 2003 (and recomputed the published rate for 2002). The students who receive a Certificate of Attendance or a Special Education Diploma are no longer counted as graduates because of the new reporting requirements in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

The restated graduation rate for 2002 is 62%, and the rate for 2003 is 63%. Moreover, there are huge differences among the subgroups which have to be considered under NCLB. According to the data for 2003, the graduation rate for white students was 71%, but only 53% for black students and 49% for Hispanic students. Economically disadvantaged students graduated at a rate of only 52%, and only 38% of the students with limited proficiency in English graduated from high school on schedule.

However, as explained later, independent studies estimate that the true graduation rate in Georgia is even lower than reported by the State of Georgia. Something is terribly wrong.

What is the graduation rate?

The completion rate published by GDOE is calculated as follows:

  1. Add all of the dropouts (as defined) over a period of four years.
  2. Divide this total by a proxy for the number of students entering the ninth grade four years earlier, which GDOE defines as the number of dropouts over the four-year period plus the number of graduates.
  3. Subtract the resulting fraction from 1.00 and multiply the result by 100%.

If nothing else, there are mathematical flaws in this formula. Although the students who transfer to a private school or a school in another state are eliminated from consideration, the students who transfer into Georgia and eventually graduate are included.

Georgia is one of the fastest growing states in the union. Its K-12 enrollment is increasing nearly 2% per year. If the net increase in the number of high school students (incoming transfers less outgoing transfers) over the four years ending in 2002 is assumed to be only 1.5% per year, this adjustment would cause the originally published graduation rate to drop from 66% to 62%. The restated graduation rate would drop to an even lower level.

This is one of the factors that lead experts in this field to contend that Georgia's official graduation rate is inflated. But the story gets worse.

Who is a drop-out?

According to GDOE, a “dropout” is any student who leaves school for one of the following reasons: Marriage, Expelled, Financial Hardship/Job, Incarcerated/Under Jurisdiction of Juvenile or Civil Justice Authority, Low Grades/School Failure, Military, Adult Education/ Postsecondary, Pregnant/Parent, Lack of Attendance, Serious Illness/Accident, and Unknown.

It is true that a student who leaves high school to enroll in a postsecondary program would not normally be considered to be a dropout, but the number of such students is relatively small. It is also true that some students ultimately graduate in more than four years, but the number of seniors who will graduate in a future year is offset by the number of delayed graduations from previous years.

On the other hand, this definition is subject to misinterpretation or wishful thinking. A student who says he or she is transferring to a private school, including a home school, or moving out of Georgia is not treated as a dropout - even though the student may not actually enroll in another school. And a student who simply “disappears” may or may not be counted in any of the various categories. If there is any doubt, a school system has much more of an incentive to count such students as a transfer than a dropout.

According to this methodology, there is no way to know how many students actually drop out. The only accurate measure would be to count the number of students who enter the ninth grade for the first time (as opposed to repeating the ninth grade), exclude those students who die, add the incoming transfers from another state, subtract the outgoing transfers to another state, and count the exact number who graduate four years later somewhere in Georgia. There is no reason why this information cannot be compiled and reported for the same cohort of students over a four-year period, without having to use the flawed formula described above.

This should be a relatively simple calculation, and one has to wonder - in this technologically advanced age - why the State of Georgia can’t keep track of its students in a comprehensive way. For comparison, if United Parcel Service (UPS) can determine on an hourly basis the status of over a billion packages every year, why can’t we in Georgia know exactly what has happened to 100,000 ninth-grade students?

Dr. Jay P. Greene of The Manhattan Institute uses an alternative approach to approximate the methodology that should be used. He calculates the graduation rate for each state by dividing the number of diplomas in a given year by the adjusted ninth-grade enrollment four years earlier, which he estimates by averaging (a) the eighth-grade enrollment five years earlier, (b) the actual enrollment in the ninth grade four years earlier, and (c) the tenth-grade enrollment three years earlier to minimize the effect of the students who are retained in the ninth grade. The resulting estimate for the beginning enrollment in the ninth grade is further adjusted by the percentage change in total enrollment over the subsequent four-year period.

When making these calculations for 1998, Dr. Greene concluded that the graduation rate in Georgia was only 54%, which was the lowest of all of the states and the District of Columbia. A similar analysis by Dr. Greene for 2001 put this rate at 56%, which was next to last in that year, ahead of only Florida. The comparable rates which he calculated for the nation as a whole were 70% in 2001 and 71% in 1998 (later recalculated by Dr. Greene to be 68%).

What do these numbers mean?

The unavoidable conclusion is simply this: If approximately 60% of all ninth graders who begin high school in Georgia are graduating four year later, then 40% are not.

There is to way to pretend that Georgia is providing an adequate education to all of its students if four out of every ten are not graduating from high school on schedule. This is a human tragedy with enormous implications, not only for the students who find themselves unprepared for citizenship and employment but also for our society as a whole.

The lack of attention to this vital subject is alarming and exposes the inadequate funding of Georgia’s schools, especially in reaching the students with various disadvantages.

Joseph G. Martin, Jr.
June 24, 2004