McDuffie County has greatly improved its high school graduation rate since the 2002-2003 school year, but local and state education officials say there is still room for improvement.
For the 2004-2005 school year, 66.9 percent of the graduating class completed high school in four years, according to the Georgia Department of Education. But just three years ago, that number - depending on the method used to calculate the rate - was either 41.5 percent or 52.6 percent.
"The bottom line is no matter how you calculate it, our graduation rate is too low, and we're working toward that," said Matt Cardoza, who is a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education. "And everything we do at the GDOE is about making sure our students ultimately graduate with a diploma."
Graduation rates have been a hot topic with educators for years, but a June 20 report that ranked Georgia 49th in the nation in graduation rates intensified the heat. The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center published a study from 2002-03 data, which is the most recent available from the Common Core of Data.
The results were published in a special edition of Education Week. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored the study.
"It is the first year that we have actually issued this report," Sterling Lloyd, research associate with EPERC, said. "Basically it's an issue that is sort of a hot topic. ... We feel it's very important because obviously earning a standard diploma helps students go on to post secondary education or get good paying jobs."
The study showed that 69.6 percent of students nationally graduate in four years, and 56.3 percent across the state of Georgia.
For McDuffie County, EPERC reported a graduation rate of 41.5 percent for the 02-03 school year. This differs from the Georgia DOE's annual report, which was 52.6 percent.
Mr. Lloyd said EPERC used the "cumulative promotion index" to calculate the rates in their report - meaning a ninth grader will complete high school in four years.
According to Morris News Service reports, the study does not consider those who have moved or transferred to other schools, nor does it account for differences in state credit requirements.
Thomson High School Assistant Principal Lynn Cato said the method leaves out those who take summer school classes, earn their GED, or take an additional year to earn their diploma. Those students are usually included in the "completion rate" for a school.
The newest method the state uses to ensure graduation is the addition of graduation specialists in every high school, which will be effective next year. On a local level, Ms. Cato said McDuffie County utilizes the Renaissance Recognition Process to reward student achievement. Other programs include an advisor/advisee program with monthly activities, freshmen orientation, graduation tests preparation classes and extra-curricular activities which encourage regular school attendance.
"We have noticed recently that our students are taking more pride in their diplomas and that our staff seems to make more of a personal commitment to the students than ever before," Ms. Cato said. "One need only see the smiles on the graduates' faces or the tears on their cheeks as they receive their diplomas to know that the papers they hold are life-changing."