December 11, 2013

Graduation rates rise for most area schools

Rachel Brown
rachelbrown@daltoncitizen.com

— A majority of local high schools saw increases in their graduation rates since last year, reflecting a statewide trend, data released Wednesday shows.

While some of the area’s larger schools — Dalton High School, Murray County High School and North Murray High School — saw their graduation rates decrease slightly, they still maintained the highest rates among area schools.

Dalton Public Schools students, who had a 77.2 percent graduation rate, were above the state graduation rate of 71.5 percent. Murray County Schools students likewise scored above the average, coming in at 75.2 percent. Whitfield County Schools’ rate was a few points below the state average at 69.5 percent.

Graduation rates have long been considered a measurement of how well local schools are performing, although educators caution that they are only one aspect of that performance and don’t always reflect a true picture of a school.

Each of the three local school systems has high schools with lower rates that officials attributed at least partly to their nontraditional settings. Mountain Creek Academy in Murray County (14.6 percent rate) and Phoenix High School in Whitfield County (30.8 percent rate) are both designed for students who want a less traditional setting. They often cater to students who struggle in school, or those who for various reasons have fallen behind. In Dalton, Morris Innovative (40 percent rate) was designed both for struggling students and for those who wanted to take certain career classes or take advantage of a smaller setting not offered at Dalton High. About half of Morris’ roughly 420 students last year needed additional help to graduate on time because they were two or more credits behind, said former principal and current College and Career Readiness Team Leader Jennifer Phinney.

Phinney said some students will return for a fifth year of high school and graduate then while others are still working to pass graduation tests, a type of assessment that will be phased out after this year.

Whitfield County Schools spokesman Eric Beavers said leaders there are proud that each high school in the system increased its graduation rate over last year.

“That confirms high school educators are doing the right work to graduate more students each year,” he said.

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Education has required all 50 states to use a cohort method to determine graduation rates. That’s a change from previous years when states used a variety of methods so there was no easy way to compare graduation rates from various states.

According to a news release from the Georgia Department of Education, “The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate defines the cohort based on when a student first becomes a freshman. The rate is calculated using the number of students who graduate within four years and includes adjustments for student transfers (to other schools and districts).

“In contrast, Georgia’s former graduation rate calculation defined the cohort upon graduation, which may have included students who took more than four years to graduate from high school.”

The state graduation rate dropped from 80 percent under the old formula used in 2011 to 71.5 percent for 2013. Georgia received a federal waiver to calculate the rate using a five-year cohort, rather than a four-year cohort, formula in 2012 for accountability purposes.

Under a complex set of regulations that replaced the federal No Child Left Behind Act designed to hold schools to a narrow set of testing, attendance and graduation standards, Georgia schools are now held accountable using a wider variety of factors, still including the graduation rate. In the past, schools that didn’t perform up to standards for several years in a row faced escalating sanctions, beginning with small measures like being required to offer free after-school tutoring and escalating up to the possibility of a state takeover.

The new standards focus on readying students for college or careers and are designed to offer under-performing schools more mandatory support from state education resources. Those results for 2013 haven’t been released yet.