Good/bad depends on mirror

Education Week's nationwide analyses puts Florida and Pinellas County in a grim light. State criteria say otherwise.

Published June 20, 2006

Another high school graduation study is out and, big surprise: Florida looks terrible.

The Sunshine State ranks 46th-worst of 50 states, with a graduation rate of 57.5 percent, according to 2002-2003 data analyzed 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 9th-worst of the nation's 50 biggest school districts.

Hillsborough's rate was 70 percent.

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

"Our research paints a much starker picture of the challenges we face in high school graduation,'' Christopher B. Swanson, research director at the center that produces the magazine, 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.''

Graduation rates are contentious and 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 that dramatically inflate the real numbers.

Education Week attempted to shed some light on the issue by applying a consistent formula to all 50 states. But even then, an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult.

States differ on many graduation-related factors, including the rigor of their high school exit exams and grade-to-grade promotion policies, especially for ninth-graders. Florida, for example, requires 24 credits for graduation, putting it among the top states, while the national average is 20.5 credits. Several states require as little as 13 credits.

On the other hand, critics say Florida is padding its numbers by counting GED earners as graduates.

Poor graduation rates have long been a source of shame and an easy club for critics of Gov. Jeb Bush's school initiatives.

But state education officials discount most rate studies because while they're based on formulas and result in estimates, Florida's student tracking system allows it to determine a much more precise rate. Only a handful of states currently have such systems, though there is national effort underway to push all states into implementing them in the next few years.

According to the state's calculations, Florida's graduation rate was 71.9 percent last year, up from 60.2 percent in 1999. Pinellas' rate was 70.1 percent; Hillsborough's, 79.5 percent.

The numbers for this school year will be calculated in the fall.

To see how Florida compares to other states in the Education Week study, and how Pinellas and Hillsborough compare to other districts, go to this site.