In this 2012 file photo, North Gwinnett senior Chrystal Ferreira, left, celebrates while turning her tassel during the North Gwinnett High School commencement at Coolray Field.
ATLANTA — Georgia's high school graduation rate of 67 percent ranks it behind all of its neighboring states and puts it among the lowest in the nation under new federal measurements released by the U.S. Department of Education.
The report details four-year high school graduation rates in 2010-11 - the first year for which all states used a common measure, federal officials say.
Only two states -- Nevada and New Mexico -- and the District of Columbia fared worse than Georgia in the new rankings released Monday.
"It's disappointing, of course, but it's good to know the real truth, if you will, of where we stand," said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.
"Not that many years ago, we were using sort of a feel-good calculation that some people were saying was as high as 80 percent," Callahan said. "I think the more honest calculation will help us address the problem more honestly."
In the past, states used varying methods to calculate their graduation rates, so the numbers were unreliable for state-by-state comparisons, federal officials said in announcing the new numbers.
The new data can be used by states, districts and schools to promote greater accountability and increase graduation rates, the federal education agency said.
Despite the low ranking, Georgia's graduation rate has been improving in recent years, regardless of which methods are used to calculate it, state School Superintendent John Barge said.
Asked how he would explain the low rate to corporations considering a move to Georgia, Barge said initiatives are in place to make needed improvements.
"We're not where we need to be, but we do have the right pieces in place to continue to move the needle forward on graduation rates," he said.
Educators nationwide knew the numbers were coming, and Georgia officials expected the state's figure to be significantly lower under the new reporting system.
Georgia PTA President Donna Kosicki recalls a meeting with lawmakers, principals and others shortly after Barge was appointed state school superintendent. Barge informed the group that Georgia's graduation rate would drop under the new federal calculations.
The new numbers are based on how many students graduate within four years, which sharply lowered rates from previous years, when longer timeframes were used by some states.
Among states bordering Georgia, Tennessee scored highest with an overall rate of 86 percent, followed by North Carolina at 78 percent.
Nevada was last among states with a 62 percent graduation rate.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Education scored worse than all of the states with a graduation rate of 61 percent.
In Georgia, "while 67 percent is not good enough for our kids, there are things in place already to get all of us to work together, to take that number higher," Kosicki said.
Despite this week's ranking, Kosicki points to other indicators of strong student achievement in Georgia schools and new initiatives aimed to further improvement. She says she's never been more excited about making education gains for Georgia's students than she is right now.
Some of the new initiatives, which include efforts to help prepare Georgia students for college and careers after high school, are outlined in a new website, gafuturenow.org.
Georgia students have also made significant gains on standardized tests.
The state leads the nation in year-to-year growth on the most recent national tests, Barge said recently.
Georgia made gains in the most recent SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement (AP), and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Math, Reading and Science.
"The progress Georgia's students have made on these national tests is something of which we should all be very proud," Barge said in a statement earlier this month. "I get very frustrated hearing people say Georgia's education system is so bad. We certainly have a lot of room to grow and improvements to make, but these results show that we're moving in the right direction."
There's an assumption of consistency across the U.S. with the new figures, but states still differ in how they compile and report rates, even under the new system, Barge said Tuesday. States also have varying graduation expectations for students, he added.
"It is more accurate, but it's still not getting at that true apples-to-apples comparison," Barge said.
The broader discussion about Georgia's graduation and drop-out rates should also include poverty, heath care and the well-being of very young children, Callahan said.
"I think the elephant in the room is poverty," Callahan said.
"We haves students arriving at our doors in kindergarten or in first grade who have not had proper nutrition, who have not been read to," said Callahan, a former teacher. "That early deprivation is a serious challenge, and it manifests itself years later in dropout rates. So I think we need to address childhood poverty and childhood health issues more comprehensively than we have been doing."