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State gets another dunce cap in study

An education publication ranks Florida 46th out of 50 states in high school graduation rates and Pinellas ninth from the bottom among the 50 largest districts.

Published June 20, 2006

Another high school graduation study is out and, again, Florida looks terrible.

The Sunshine State ranks 46th out of 50 states, with a graduation rate of 57.5 percent, according to an analysis of 2002-03 data released Tuesday by Education Week magazine, a respected publication devoted to school news.

The numbers for Pinellas County are even uglier: 46.5 percent, making it the ninth-worst of the nation’s 50 largest school districts.

Hillsborough’s graduation rate was 70 percent.

Nationwide, Education Week found a four-year rate of 69.6 percent, which means 1.2-million high school students every year are not graduating with their class.

“Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation,” Christopher B. Swanson, who directs the magazine’s research center, said in a written statement. “When 30 percent of our ninth-graders fail to finish high school with a diploma, we are dealing with a crisis that has frightening implications for our country’s future.”

When it comes to Florida’s ranking, the Education Week findings mirror other graduation reports in recent years — and brought the same collective groan from state education officials. Poor graduation rates in Florida have long been a source of shame but are now an easy club for critics of Gov. Jeb Bush’s school initiatives.

“Those aren’t accurate numbers, but we have improved our graduation rate measured by any means,” Bush said Tuesday.

The latest Florida report, released in November, showed a 71.6 percent graduation rate for 2004-05, up 11 percentage points since Bush took office in 1999.

State-by-state comparisons on graduation rates are unfair, Department of Education officials say, because they are based on statistical formulas and result in estimates, while Florida’s student tracking system produces a  more precise figure. Few states have education data 3systems as sophisticated as Florida’s.

Also, states differ on many graduation-related policies, including the difficulty of their high school exit exams and the number of class credits required to earn a diploma. So even when the same formula is applied to each state — which is what Education Week did — an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult.

Nationally, graduation rates are increasingly under the microscope.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires states to improve their graduation rates every year to discourage them from pushing struggling students out of school as they attempt to improve test scores. But the U.S. Department of Education has allowed states to determine their own rates and critics say many of them are using questionable formulas designed to yield more flattering results.

Education Week attempted to shed new light on the issue by applying a consistent formula and using numbers from a federal database that includes an annual census of the nation’s 11,000 school districts.

Its big-picture findings:
- States are pumping up their numbers: Only one state, Washington, self-reported a lower rate to the federal government than the rate estimated by Education Week. Florida’s self-reported rate was 8 points higher. North Carolina’s was 31 points higher.

- Black and Hispanic students are graduating at far lower rates: The  rate for black students in 2002-03 was 51.6 percent, compared with 55.6 percent for Hispanics, 76.2 percent for whites and 77 percent for Asians.

- Boys are doing worse than girls: Only 65.2 percent of boys graduated in 2002-03, compared with 72.7 percent of girls. The gender gap was widest among blacks, with males nearly 14 points behind females.

- Freshmen are the weak link: More ninth-graders quit school than any other class, about 27 percent of all who eventually fall through the cracks. In many high-poverty districts, the rate tops 40 percent.

The latest statistics are likely to provide more fuel for an emerging high school reform movement, which is taking root in Florida and nationwide. It’s also likely to prod an effort, led by the National Governors Association, to force states to agree on a common formula for determining graduation rates and better systems for tracking individual students.

In Florida, voters will be reminded frequently about dismal graduation rates as the race to replace Bush as governor unfolds. But wonky details about graduation policies probably won’t get as much play.

Florida, for example, requires 24 credits for graduation, putting it among the most rigorous states. The national average is 20.5 credits. Several states require as few as 13.

Florida also is one of only 23 states with an exit exam, and one of only 18 with an exam based on 10th-grade standards or higher.

On the other hand, critics say Florida is blatantly padding its numbers by counting General Educational Development test passers as graduates instead of dropouts. In 2002-03, the state determined its graduation rate was 69 percent. Without GEDs in the mix, it was 65.8 percent, DOE officials say.

Pinellas and Hillsborough officials had different takes on the latest numbers.

Hillsborough district spokesman Stephen Hegarty questioned the magazine’s methodology, noting that DOE put the district’s rate closer to 76 percent. Then again, Hillsborough ranked 12th-best among the biggest districts and compared favorably to wealthier districts in Raleigh, N.C., and Fairfax County, Va.

“We don’t like the 70 percent number, but compared to other districts, we like our position,” Hegarty said.
Allen Mortimer, director of policy and planning for Pinellas schools, also sided with the state’s calculations, which pegged Pinellas’ graduation rate 22 percentage points higher than the Education Week formula.

But the bottom line, he said, is “there are a lot of kids who don’t graduate no matter how you calculate it.”

Times staff writer Donna Winchester and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

[Last modified June 20, 2006, 23:37:13]

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