Last night I couldn’t sleep because I was so anxious about the release today of graduation rates for Georgia and Atlanta Public Schools.
We tracked students all school year, and the very strong predictive data had me very encouraged, but I still wasn’t quite ready for the news I received about our graduation rate numbers for the Class of 2015 even though I knew it was coming. In short, our predictions were right—our graduation rate increased, and it increased by double digits. As expected as well, there are a complex set of reasons for the gain.
So when the Georgia State Department of Education delivered final graduation rates to school districts across Georgia on November 9, Atlanta Public Schools had cause to celebrate: The cohort of 2015 (students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2011) reached a recent high for the district’s graduation rate with 71.5 percent, a rate more than 12 percentage points higher than the previous graduating class. This is compared with a 2015 state graduation rate of 78.8 percent, 6.3 percentage points higher than 2014. APS closed the gap with the state by 6.1 percentage points.
We saw rate increases across nearly all of our high school programs. Overall, APS graduated 2,116 students in 2015 compared to 1,775 in 2014.
I’m teary-eyed while I’m typing this… It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the idea that the work of the dedicated professionals in our district made this much of a difference for our students knowing the difference it makes in the lives of students and their families to graduate from high school—their prospects for postsecondary educational options, careers and future earnings are significantly better than those who drop out. I am proud of the contributions from all of our high schools in ensuring that more students graduate on time. While there is no perfect way to really know exactly the impact of the changes to the state testing policies, based on the state data, I can say that it did contribute to our increase but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The rest of the story is that we also instituted targeted district-wide interventions that, when combined, supported these dramatic gains.
Let me start with the strategic work APS is doing to drive a clear but rigorous path to graduation for our high school students. In the 2014-2015 school year, the district developed a comprehensive plan to improve the rate of seniors graduating, including a district-wide approach for counseling seniors; increased availability of credit recovery opportunities; and improved systems and processes for managing student data.
Here’s a breakdown of our efforts:
- At each high school, our graduation coaches met with students on a regular basis to review transcripts, offer opportunities for credit recovery and track student withdrawals and dropouts.
- The new Office of High Schools, under the leadership of Associate Superintendent of High Schools Dr. Timothy Gadson, also encouraged high schools to take full advantage of credit recovery as allowed by the state of Georgia. APS focuses much of its credit-recovery efforts through the Atlanta Virtual Academy and the West End Academy.
- From cohort 2014 to cohort 2015, there was an increase in both the number and percent of graduates earning at least .5 credit through Atlanta Virtual Academy from 333 graduates (19 percent) in 2014 compared to 697 graduates (33 percent) in 2015.
- At the same time, the number of West End graduates during the regular school year rose from 53 for cohort 2014 to 76 for cohort 2015. Students who completed their requirements at West End graduated from to their home school. Students from Mays High took particular advantage of West End Academy. In 2014, Mays had six West End graduates, and that increased to 31 in 2015.
- Additionally in 2015, more students with disabilities were able to receive general education diplomas due to both state assessment policy changes and our improved special education student data tracking. In the Class of 2015, 14 students received alternative diplomas or certificates that are not counted towards our graduation rate, a decrease of 71 from the previous year. Increasing our general education diploma count by 71 students accounts for about 2 points of the increase in the overall APS graduation rate.
- Finally, all APS graduation coaches and counselors began using a newly designed data management system to track academic progress of seniors. The system includes a dashboard application that helps coaches keep track of their cohorts, and counselors completed Graduation Status Reports on each student where they categorized each student as on or off track for graduation.
I am bursting to give a shout out to our Data and Information Group and the Office of High Schools for their collaboration to design these applications and systems. Awesome, awesome job!
With regard to the state testing changes, beginning with the Class of 2015 (students who entered 9th grade in the fall of 2011), the Georgia Board of Education removed the requirement for high school students to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Tests in each core area before they could graduate. Students still take state end-of-course assessments in core courses, and those state-wide final exams count for 20% of the student’s final grade in the course.
The change in the graduation test requirement removed a hurdle for some students. For previous cohorts, hundreds of APS students did not receive their diplomas, at least in part, because they failed one or more graduation test subjects.
It’s difficult to measure all of the contributing factors and assign percentages to each because many are inter-related, and, of course, there are many other reasons why students dropped out of school. But, I do believe that all of us made a difference, and that the number rose because of the hard work of many people across Atlanta Public Schools. I thank all of you – from volunteers and partners to teachers, students, principals, and parents! When we all work together toward the same goal, we can make a powerful difference for our kids.
While it is appropriate for us to celebrate the progress we have made in graduating more students, we must not lose sight of the fact that 29% of our students did not make it across the finish line in the Class of 2015, which is why our work doesn’t stop here. We will not stop supporting those students in Cohort 2015 who haven’t yet completed their graduation requirements. Stay tuned for the Class of 2016!