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Florida graduation rates soar, but there's a catch

The Florida Department of Education announced a record-high graduation rate of 80.1 percent Monday, prompting school districts around the state to celebrate. But experts say take the numbers with a grain of salt.

And brace for a shock next year. The state's numbers for the 2010-11 school year do not include thousands of struggling students who transferred into adult education programs and may earn GED diplomas. Under the state's current graduation rate formula, they are excluded from the calculation even if they drop out — which critics say many of them do.

Next year, Florida won't be able to hide them.

For the first time, every state will be using a new, tougher, federal formula that does not discount adult education transfers. And Florida is among many states expected to take a hit.

"I would think it would be between 5 and 10 percent across all the states," said Chris West, a researcher with the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University. "It's going to look worse, but it's going to look more realistic."

The new formula also will not count some diplomas awarded to special education students. Florida awarded at least 3,400 such diplomas this year.

School districts know what's coming.

Next month, the state will be releasing 2010-11 grad rates that were calculated according to the federal formula. They will be used next spring to help determine whether high schools met federal standards under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Pinellas officials said initial estimates show the district's grad rate — which, like the state's, reached a new high of 80.1 percent this year — would have been 69.5 percent had changes in adult education transfers and some special diplomas been considered.

Officials in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando did not provide similar information when asked Monday. But their rates apparently would have tumbled as well, according to data provided by the Department of Education and analyzed by the St. Petersburg Times.

Hillsborough's rate likely would have been 70.9 percent instead of 84.3 percent if the two major changes — adult education and some special diplomas — had been part of the formula. It's among the big districts that have benefited the most from the current calculation. Last year, its rate would have dropped from 82.3 percent to 70.4 percent had adult education transfers been factored in.

Hernando's rate would have been 75.5 percent instead of 80.4 percent and Pasco's 76.1 percent instead of 86 percent. The statewide graduation rate would have been 72.5 percent instead of 80.1.

In Pasco, Hudson High saw the biggest single-year increase ever: 70.2 percent to 85 percent. But even as assistant principal Michelle Williams celebrated, she acknowledged the school's 85 percent rate won't last. With the new formula, she said, "it would have been closer to 67 percent."

Florida Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson could not be reached for comment Monday.

Using their own formulas, independent researchers have found Florida's graduation rates to be among the worst in the nation, but also among the fastest rising. Their numbers tend to be substantially lower than what the state claims.

Critics point to a loophole.

Last year, nearly 15,000 adult education transfers were left out of Florida's calculations, boosting the graduation rate by 5.7 percentage points, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis. Almost as many (14,643) were left out this year, according to DOE data sent late Monday in response to a Times request.

Next year's graduation rates are also expected to take a hit from a harder-to-pass FCAT.

The state Board of Education is poised to okay higher passing scores for the test, which 10th-graders must hurdle to graduate. According to state data, the percentage of 10th-graders passing the reading FCAT would fall from 60 percent to 52 percent if the new standards were applied to last year's results.

"It certainly makes for additional challenges," said Pinellas associate superintendent Bill Lawrence, referring to changes to the FCAT and grad rate formula. "I think you're going to see declines (in grad rates) across the state, absolutely."

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8873.

Hillsborough: Newsome High School, which serves the east Hillsborough bedroom community of FishHawk Ranch, posted the district's highest graduation rate at 99.4 percent. Other schools with 90-plus rates — led by Steinbrenner, Plant and Riverview — boosted Hillsborough to a districtwide graduation rate of 84.3 percent.

Pinellas: All but one of the district's traditional high schools saw a greater percentage of their students graduating last year compared with 2009-10. Pinellas Park and Dunedin high schools made the most gains in their graduation rates over the year prior.

Hernando: The district's four high schools boosted their graduation rates: Hernando High went from 74.9 to 75.3, Frank W. Springstead went from 76.9 to 80.2, Central High went from 78.9 to 80.2 and Nature Coast Technical High School went from 89.8 to 90.1

Pasco: All but two high schools — Zephyrhills and Sunlake — saw their graduation rates go up.

Times staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Florida graduation rates soar, but there's a catch 12/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 11:25am]
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