Report praises Hillsborough's grad rates, but notes a problem
TAMPA -- The Hillsborough County school district got some national attention this week, praised for double-digit graduation rate increases and success at helping students reach 12th grade.
Researchers led by Robert Balfanz at Johns Hopkins University chose the district as one of three success stories in the report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic. They pointed to Hillsborough's graduation rate of 82.3 percent last year, up from 69.5 percent in 2000. And they said 12 of 25 of the district's high schools had a graduation rate of 90 percent or higher, according to the formula used by the National Governor's Association.
But there's a footnote.
"Currently Florida regulations allow students 16 and over who transfer into adult education programs not to be counted in the denominator of the graduation rate calculation," it said.
Balfanz and co-writer Joanna Hornig Fox said they added the caveat after the St. Petersburg Times read an embargoed version of the report and drew their attention to a recent story by Ron Matus and Connie Humberg. That story reported that Hillsborough has been transferring far more students into adult education programs than other large Florida districts.
"We're going to add that note so people can draw their own inferences," Balfanz said.
When such students are counted in the mix, Hillsborough's graduation rate falls from 82.3 percent to 70.4 percent. And the number of high schools graduating 90 percent of their students drops from a dozen to just two.
"It was a great article and it actually solved a mystery for me that I've had for quite awhile," Balfanz said. "Florida was saying, 'We were following the National Governor's Association rate,' but the rates statewide seemed higher than other data would indicate."
He said it's another example of the weakness of the NGA rate, which allows states too much latitude in manipulating the numbers of students who are being measured.
"There aren't strong restrictions on who you can remove from the cohort. It leads to inaccuracies in the rate," he said. "Some other states removed special ed kids."
The problem will likely disappear next year when states adopt a uniform federal graduation rate. But Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia has defended her district's approach of transferring some at-risk high schoolers into adult ed, saying the goal is to keep them in school.
And Balfanz -- who drew the ire of many districts in recent years for research that declared high schools "dropout factories" -- said the confusion over formulas shouldn't detract from Hillsborough's real achievements. Using his promoting-power measure, which compares the number of freshmen to the number of seniors four years later, the district has reduced its own "dropout factory" count from 11 to four.
"We were looking for districts where multiple schools made double-digit progress over time," Balfanz said. "On that metric, Hillsborough did stand out when we did a nationwide scan."
Here's a copy of the report by the America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. (Note: it's a large file.)