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High school graduation rates improve

After five straight years of gains, the state's rate now tops 71 percent.

Published November 17, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Florida's high school graduation rate has improved for a fifth consecutive year, with minority students making the largest gains, state education officials said Tuesday.

The state graduation rate jumped 2.6 percent in 2003-04, and now tops 71 percent.

"All of us take great pride in the work our schools are doing," Education Commissioner John Winn said Tuesday when he announced the results to the state Board of Education. "We've continued to keep students in school with positive outcomes."

The improvement comes despite criticism that Gov. Jeb Bush's education initiatives, and especially his focus on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, have set the bar too high, hurting minority students in particular.

The graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students were up 3.1 and 2.9 percent, respectively. They still lag white students, Asian students and the student population as a whole, but they closed those gaps slightly last year.

All five counties in the Tampa Bay area posted increases, although only Hillsborough, which went up 3.5 percent, exceeded the state average. Pinellas was once again the lowest performing of the five area school districts, with a graduation rate of 70.8 percent, more than 8 points behind Hillsborough.

Statewide, 50 of 67 districts were up, with Charlotte and Hardee counties in southwest Florida and Union County near Jacksonville making the biggest leaps.

Some education experts warn that graduation rates should be taken with a grain of salt because so much depends on the formula used to compute them.

Florida, which has long had one of the nation's lowest graduation rates, counts the number of students who move from ninth to 12th grade and graduate with either a standard or special diploma or pass the GED test. Special diplomas are awarded to students with certain disabilities.

By contrast, the federal government does not count GED or special diploma recipients. Its tallies, which are posted on the state Department of Education Web site, are several percentage points below the state's.

"We believe those diplomas are meaningful," said department spokesman MacKay Jimeson.

The state figures show rates fluctuating wildly from district to district. Since 1999, the rate in Glades County has dropped 11.9 percent while Brevard County's has rocketed 27.8 percent, to 91.7 percent.

The districts provide the data, but the numbers are crunched by the state, Jimeson said.

"I have no reason to question the data," he said.

In a related development, the Board of Education asked the Legislature to amend a new law that could cut tens of millions of dollars from school districts that don't improve student test scores and graduation rates.

The law requires districts to meet a range of student achievement goals beginning next year or face repercussions involving 10 percent or more of their state education dollars.

It's not clear from the law whether funding would be cut or redirected.

After a lengthy discussion, the board approved a "performance funding" formula that it was required to submit to the Legislature by Dec. 1. But the board also recommended that basic services not be put at risk.

"I don't think we intended to say ... no or yes" to the Legislature's plan, board chairman Phil Handy said after the vote. "It was intended to be, "Please, take a hard look at the fact that basic services are at risk."'

Withholding too much money from the districts, Handy said, "would undermine the credibility of the accountability system."

Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or

[Last modified November 17, 2004, 00:01:07]

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