Florida's improving graduation rate is strongly driven by students who failed to pass the FCAT exit exam, but still managed to get a diploma through an exemption: a high enough score on another standardized test.
The number of graduating seniors in the "alternate assessment" category has quadrupled in two years. And last year, those students accounted for 43 percent of the growth in diplomas.
The uptick plays into simmering debates about whether the FCAT exit exam is too hard or too easy, and whether a Florida diploma carries enough weight.
For some, it also means Florida should have another asterisk by its graduation rate, long among the worst in the nation.
The rate rose a heady 3 points last year, to 75.4 percent, according to data released by the state Department of Education last week.
It's a "cynical exemption," said University of South Florida education professor Sherman Dorn, who is critical of both Florida's accountability system and its method of calculating graduation rates. "It waves away the importance of the FCAT."
The response from DOE: "It's not the most ideal scenario," said spokesman Tom Butler. "But it is a pathway to success for these students."
Among other graduation requirements, Florida students must pass an exit exam — the 10th-grade FCAT in math and reading — to earn a standard diploma. But if they bomb on the FCAT, they can still get a diploma if they earn what the state considers a comparable score on the SAT or ACT, two tests associated with college admissions.
The number of students using that option has been rising rapidly, but did not become a significant factor in the state's graduation rates until three years ago. Last year, 6,546 graduating seniors fit into this category — up 2,561 students from the year before.
The total number of graduates increased by 5,995 over that time.
Students must fail the FCAT exit exam at least three times before they substitute an ACT or SAT score.
The comparable ACT score is a 15 in reading or math. For the SAT, it is 410 in reading and 370 in math. Students who score at those levels would rank between the 10th and 21st percentile among ACT and SAT test takers. But since those tests are more likely taken by college-bound students, comparisons are iffy.
DOE determined the comparable ACT and SAT scores in 2003 after analyzing the scores of tens of thousands of students who had taken both the FCAT and one of the other tests.
Jay Greene, a nationally recognized expert on graduation rates, said there is no reason to doubt DOE's competence in equating the scores. But he also said it's "puzzling" that so many students could earn a comparable score after failing the FCAT several times.
"This raises some flags that further investigation is warranted," said Greene, who heads the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas.
Butler, the DOE spokesman, said it's unclear whether the issue would be discussed within DOE or with the state Board of Education. But he said the growth in the number of alternate assessment graduates was "a positive thing."
"You'd ideally like them to go the traditional route," he said. "But that isn't always going to be what's going to work for every single student."
About two dozen other states require exit exams for graduation. Many offer alternatives, either with other tests or portfolios of student work, Greene said. Florida also offers a number of exemptions for students who fail the third-grade FCAT and risk being held back.
Graduation rates and requirements are touchy topics in Florida.
Critics say the state is padding its rates by including GED diplomas, and the spike in alternative assessments may give them more ammo. On the other hand, education commissioner Eric J. Smith has recommended that GEDs be cut from the rate formula. He is also spearheading talks about college and career readiness with the goal of making diplomas more valuable.
The value of the FCAT exit exam is part of that wider debate. Many district officials say the 10th-grade FCAT in reading is too hard and/or out of sync with FCAT reading tests in other grades.
Last year, only 38 percent of 10th-graders passed it. Yet other tests show the average 10th-grader in Florida ranks in the 71st percentile nationally in reading.
At the same time, critics who say the 10th-grade FCAT is too easy point to Florida community colleges, which are plagued by high school graduates who need remedial classes.