A county commissioner doesn’t usually talk about high school graduation rates, leaving education policy to school boards and superintendents.
But this is exactly the topic Commissioner Lisa Cupid raised when the Cobb Board of Commissioners held its annual wish list meeting with the Cobb Legislative Delegation in advance of this year’s Georgia General Assembly session.
The reason she raised the topic, Cupid said, is because a school’s performance has a direct impact on how its surrounding community can flourish and develop.
The official graduation rate for Osborne High School is in the 60s. Count only the students who have attended all four years at Osborne, however, and that number rockets to the 90s.
The problem here is when a school has to advertise that 40 percent of its students don’t graduate on time, it appears the school isn’t doing its job. And that causes a ripple effect by discouraging families from moving to the area, causing property values to fall and curbing commercial development. The repercussions for the surrounding community are vast when a school is labeled as failing its students.
Osborne Principal Josh Morreale has been complaining about the way the graduation rate is calculated for years. Hearing his arguments, one immediately understands why.
When students enter their freshman year of high school, they are coded as part of a group, or “cohort,” and expected to graduate in four years.
A student could have attended high school for three and a half years in New York and enrolled at Osborne in just the last few weeks before that class graduates. The New York student may lack the required credits needed to graduate with the Osborne class. Yet when she’s held back from graduating, it counts against Osborne’s graduation rate, never mind she spent most of her high school career elsewhere.
Another example is the Osborne sophomore whose family decides to move to California without a forwarding address. If Osborne’s staff can’t find the school the new Californian is attending to obtain the necessary transfer records, that student is also counted against Osborne’s graduation rate.
In a school with a transiency rate of 42 percent, students are coming and going all the time. Morreale has two people whose sole responsibility it is to try to track where they’ve gone.
Penalizing a high school for these reasons is ridiculous. Only the federal government could design such a flawed system, which is why it comes as no surprise that the graduation rate is governed by federal law.
That law says students must be counted as part of a freshman cohort, although the way that cohort is defined differs from state to state. In Georgia, for instance, it begins in June, the summer eighth graders prepare to enter high school. Yet if the Georgia Department of Education desired, federal law would allow for the count to begin as late as Oct. 1, a request Superintendent Chris Ragsdale has asked Cobb legislators to enact. In highly transient schools, an estimated 30 to 50 students never show up between eighth grade and high school for whatever reason — students district officials can’t find because they haven’t left any forwarding address. Activating the freshman count on Oct. 1 would prevent such students from counting against a school’s graduation rate, according to John Floresta, the Cobb School District’s chief strategy and accountability officer.
While it’s a step in the right direction, that change would not fix the problems illustrated in the examples of the New York and California students. Preventing students in those cases from counting against a school would require a change in the federal law.
Meantime, though, the state can agree with Ragsdale’s request to make a bad situation better while waiting for federal lawmakers to make the permanent legislative fix.
When Ragsdale held his wish list session with Cobb legislators, asking them for help on the topic, state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, said a couple years ago he contacted the Georgia Department of Education to see what could be done.
Clearly, nothing happened, which is why Reeves said a legislative fix is in order. State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, has also vowed to carry a bill this session to address the problem.
Georgia legislators should do all they can at the state level to mitigate the effects of a breathtakingly bad federal law. Honoring Ragsdale’s request would be a good place to start.
State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-east Cobb, has suggested applying for a federal waiver to the graduation rate law, a waiver she believes is more likely to be granted under the Trump administration.
It’s not a bad idea, but ultimately our federal representatives need to correct the flaws in this law so that our schools and communities are not penalized for things they can do nothing about.
As it is now, Georgia’s graduation rates just don’t add up.