In the national race to raise high school graduation rates, Tennessee and Georgia have posted some of the best and worst numbers in the nation, respectively.
Tennessee's graduation rate increased by 20 percentage points between 1998 and 2008 - a bigger improvement than any state in the country, according to the Diplomas Count report, released this week by Editorial Projects in Education. The state's 2008 graduation rate of 76.9 percent put the Volunteer State 14th in the nation, the report stated.
Meanwhile, Georgia's 2008 graduation rate of 58.8 percent landed it at 47th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia.
"There's a bit of a gulf between the two," said Sterling Lloyd, senior research associate at the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. "We don't look at causation. We hope that policymakers and journalists will analyze the data."
Overall, the national graduation rate increased about 6 percentage points between 1998 and 2008, and stands now at 71.7 percent.
Despite an emphasis in both Tennessee and Georgia on "single-path" diplomas - rather than a choice between academic or vocational tracks - Lloyd and fellow Diplomas Count researchers say the nation's economic future depends on preparing students for postsecondary options other than four-year colleges.
Only one-third of high school graduates go on to earn a four-year degree, Lloyd said, so most will be looking for "other paths to economic success."
But training students for those other paths is not at odds with a single-path academic diploma, he said.
"The skills that are required for various occupations may be largely similar whether you're on a college track or a career track. We think about them as being rigidly separate tracks, but that may not be the case anymore," he said.
"We may want to expose all students to a range of options and expose them to career skills and work experience. The key factor may not be the diploma that's earned but the actual coursework and the range of skills they're allowed to develop," he said.
The most recent data available for all states is 2008. Georgia officials cautioned that those numbers will be three years old when the 2011 graduation rate is released next month by the state education department.
For instance, Georgia completely revamped its curriculum in 2005 in an attempt to make it more relevant. That should lead to higher numbers of students graduating, said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. It likely will take more than three years' worth of data to show that increase, Cardoza said.
"I think we'll see some movement for sure with increasing that standard," he said.
Despite the high-stakes nature of graduation rates - often considered the best indicator of a high school's success - it can be difficult to calculate the exact figure. Various states and statisticians use different methods. Some count only those students who graduate in exactly four years and a summer. Others assign each student a unique ID number so that dropouts and out-of-state transfers don't count against the rate.
The graduation rates that Tennessee and Georgia self-reported for federal accountability purposes are considerably higher than those in the Diplomas Count report.
In 2008, Georgia reported that it had a 75.4 percent graduation rate, while Diplomas Count said the number was 58.8 percent. That same year, Tennessee reported its graduation rate as 82.2 percent, compared to the report's calculation of 76.9 percent.
"That's the difficulty with not having a uniform rate," Cardoza said. "Sometimes it is difficult to know, 'What is our real graduation rate?'"
Beginning last school year, Tennessee started using a "cohort" graduation rate that assigns each ninth-grader an ID number and calculates which of those students made it through 12th grade, Department of Education spokeswoman Amanda Morris said.
Next year, all states will be required by the federal government to report a cohort rate.
"Basically, [it's] an attempt to get all states on the same page," Morris said. "This allows for more accurate and comparable data across states."
When Georgia reports its cohort rate for the first time next year, Cardoza said officials expect at least a 15 percentage point drop from the current 80.8 percent graduation rate they now claim.
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