Florida just pumped value into its high school diploma. But in the process, it may have thrown several thousand struggling students under the bus.
The reason: An abrupt decision by the Department of Education to scrap a policy that allowed a small percentage of high school students to earn standard diplomas even though they did not have enough credits or a high enough grade point average.
Districts fear the change, quietly announced July 31, will spur more dropouts among students currently enrolled in alternative graduation programs.
"They've ripped the hope out of these kids," said Dee Burns, who oversees dropout prevention in Pinellas. "They deserve to have adults keeping our word to them."
Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said legal considerations left the state no choice. But he also said the change makes a Florida diploma more valuable and the state's oft-disputed graduation rate more credible.
"It's a fairness issue. It's a truth in advertising issue," Smith said. "Your mom and dad, employers, the students have a right to know" what it takes to earn a standard diploma.
At issue is the "GED exit option."
Most Florida high school students earn a standard diploma by earning 24 credits, maintaining a 2.0 GPA and passing the 10th-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
But under the GED exit option, students who fell short on credits or GPA could earn a standard diploma if 1) they passed the GED and the FCAT, or 2) they passed the GED and earned a high enough score on college entrance exams.
Last year, 3,060 students statewide earned standard diplomas that way, including 172 in Pinellas and 301 in Hillsborough.
Across Florida, 142,951 students earned standard diplomas.
Critics have long accused Florida of padding its graduation rates — among the worst in the country — by including students who use the GED exit option.
Smith has been looking at a change for more than a year. And new federal rules require states to stop counting GED recipients as graduates no later than 2011.
Still, district officials said, DOE should have offered a future shut-down date to accommodate students currently working toward the option.
Pinellas expects about 300 students to be affected in the coming year, including more than 100 who have been told the option was a legitimate route to a standard diploma, Burns said.
"They're not going to be okay," she said.
In Pinellas, the GED exit option is part of a program that requires good attendance and student portfolios. In Hillsborough, it's incorporated into a two-year program that also includes other requirements.
"We have some kids who are halfway through," said Hillsborough district lobbyist Connie Milito. "What are we going to do for those kids … and not mess them up?"
Smith said the Department of Education legal staff discovered late last year that the state did not have legal authority to offer the option. The department supported a bill last spring for an "alternative diploma," but it did not pass.
It's not clear how the policy came into being. DOE officials believe it has been in use for 15 to 20 years.
Ending it could make Florida's graduation rate even worse. But Smith said the rate will also be more accurate and credible.
"Just as our standard diploma needs to mean something, our published graduation rate needs to mean something," he said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.