When the state of Florida released its official high school graduation figures last month, Gov. Charlie Crist's office said the rates had "soared to new heights." But the numbers are not flying nearly as high as the state proclaims, according to an analysis by the St. Petersburg Times.
Blame a loophole.
Nearly 15,000 students who headed into adult education programs were not counted toward the latest graduation rate. Put them back in the mix, and Florida's graduation rate drops from 79 percent to 73.3 percent.
The numbers fall even further for some school districts, including Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough.
The latter has boasted about having the highest graduation rate among Florida's seven biggest school districts. But when the adult education transfers are included, Hillsborough's rate tumbles from 82.3 percent to 70.4 percent, putting it fourth among the big seven.
The state's top education official suggested the revised rate is more accurate.
"That's a group of kids that really we're just not being accountable for," Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said. "We intend to deal with that and we're moving in the right direction."
Critics say the loophole not only masks how many kids are truly dropping out, but shortchanges students who may have benefited from other options. Though not unique to Florida, it's a big reason why the state's official rates are at odds with credible estimates by independent researchers who say the state's real numbers are much lower.
Change is coming. For the class of 2012, the state will move to a new graduation rate formula, established by the federal government, that does not discount adult education transfers. The new rate will expose districts that have been nudging lots of kids into those programs. It will also whack some high schools, given a new grading system that considers growth in grad rates.
Hillsborough High in Tampa, for example, could see its rate plummet by 20 percentage points while Dixie Hollins High in Pinellas could drop by 17. Their grades could get zapped too.
In the meantime, though, parents and others are left to wonder: What is the real rate? And is it getting better or not?
"Let's deal with reality," said Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner, who raised the issue at a workshop this week. "It's not a matter of looking at what rate is worse. It's a matter of looking at what's really happening."
The state began excluding adult education transfers more than a decade ago, for reasons the Florida Department of Education could not immediately answer.
Students who transfer to adult education programs must be 16 years old. Many of them are far behind in credits, saddled with low grade point averages and facing an uphill slog to a diploma. In many districts, critics say, the system simply loses track of them.
The response from districts to the revised grad rate depends on how much their numbers drop. Those that suffer by comparison say they're playing by the rules, or doing their best to offer options. Those that don't say they deserve credit for taking the high road.
Hillsborough had 2,138 adult education transfers in the 2009-10 cohort. That's more than any other district and almost twice as many as Miami-Dade, which has twice as many students.
The Times e-mailed district officials questions Thursday, including: Does the revised graduation rate offer a truer picture?
Late Friday afternoon, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe e-mailed this response: "Our goal is to offer students as many opportunities for success as possible. While we would like every student to get a regular diploma in four years, the reality is that is not possible for some kids."
She also wrote: "We offer far more opportunities in adult education than the other school districts."
When transfer students are considered, Palm Beach County has the best grad rate among the big districts, at 80.1 percent. Palm Beach had 292 adult education transfers in the most recent graduation cohort, about a third as many as Pinellas.
"You know that old E.F. Hutton commercial: We earn our money the old fashioned way?" said Palm Beach County superintendent Art Johnson. "We earn our graduation rates the old fashioned way."
Johnson said the district strives to find better options for at-risk kids than adult education. In the short term, its graduation rates might take a hit. But when the new formula kicks in, it'll be breathing easier.
"We won't have to wean ourself," he said.
Pinellas' graduation rate drops from 78 to 70.7 percent once adult education transfers are included. Pinellas officials wouldn't say which rate is more accurate. That "would depend on what your definition of a graduate is," said Alan Mortimer, director of research and accountability in Pinellas.
Pasco's rate falls from 81.9 to 73.3 percent.
Ramon Suarez, that district's supervisor of graduation enhancement, said Pasco does track adult education transfers. If the student drops out, they're recoded as such at their home school, he said.
But he wasn't sure why Pasco had a higher rate of such students. "That's a good question," he said.
Crunching graduation rates, especially in Florida, is complicated and controversial. Even with calls for a more honest rate, there are gray areas in adult education transfers:
• The number of such transfers is steadily declining. For the 2006-07 cohort, there were 22,724 such transfers, according to DOE figures. For the 2009-10 cohort, there were 14,744.
• It appears Florida's grad rate is inflated and improving. Solid, independent estimates find that while Florida's rate is among the lowest in the country, it is also among the fastest-rising.
• There remains a debate about how to consider GED recipients. The GED route isn't nearly as rigorous as the path to a standard diploma. But many principals and district officials say the gumption it takes for students to successfully navigate it should carry some reward for the institutions that helped them.
Still, it's not hard to back the idea of a better formula, said Sherman Dorn, a University of South Florida professor who has rapped the state's rate for years.
"Graduation rates are sort of like mortality rates . . . they don't help you intervene at the time," Dorn said. "But it should lead to more honest discussions about what to do down the line."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com and (727) 893-8873.