BROOKSVILLE — If all of Hernando County's ninth-grade students were assembled, they could look to their left and then to their right and bet that one of those peers wouldn't graduate with a traditional high school diploma, according to a study released this week.
That review shows that in 2006, only half of Hernando County's students earned their diplomas the old-fashioned way: in school, in four years.
In Hernando, 50.5 percent of students earned a standard high school diploma that year, down 4.5 points from 2005, according to Diplomas Count, a study by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. Florida's graduation rate fell from 60.5 percent in 2005 to 57.5 percent in 2006, the study showed.
Those figures, however, are markedly different from Florida Department of Education numbers, which put Hernando's graduation rate in 2006 at 74 percent and the state's rate at 71 percent.
Hernando's rate climbed to 78 percent last year, according to the state Education Department, prompting school district officials to celebrate.
The main reason for the difference between the state's numbers and the Education Week study is the definition of "graduation," said Jim Knight, Hernando's executive director of student services.
Florida defines a high school graduate as any student who earns a standard or special diploma or successfully passes a General Educational Development, or GED, exam within four years of entering ninth grade for the first time.
Diplomas Count uses guidelines in the No Child Left Behind law, which only measure students receiving standard high school diplomas.
"They're not taking everything into consideration," Knight said of the study.
The study is a still a good yardstick for how many students graduate in four years with a traditional diploma, said Christopher Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
Debate over method
But some experts say it shouldn't be trusted to even do that.
In a news release, the independent, nonprofit Economic Policy Institute asserts that the study's methodology is flawed and produces "exceedingly inaccurate results" that could underestimate graduation rates by 9 percent and by as much as 14 percent for minorities.
Among the major flaws, according to EPI, the study does not account for grade retention or for students who transfer out of a district.
Swanson acknowledges that the study, like all research, has flaws but dismisses the notion that his center's study is not a good snapshot of graduation rates.
He notes that some districts that have had substantial growth over several years might have lower results, but not more than a few percentage points.
"The bottom line is we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Swanson said. "At the end of day the real point is … whether the rate is where it needs to be and if it's not, where can we learn from this research."
He points out that his study applies a consistent methodology for the 11,000 school districts in the country, which averaged a 69 percent graduation rate in 2006 — 19 points higher than what the study showed for Hernando.
Progress in district
Knight said the district's progress in recent years is undeniable and can be credited to several strategies. The district allows students to take seven credits a year and earn one credit during summer school to catch up, Knight said. Students who come into high school deficient in reading and math can take remedial courses. "High schools are looking at data and analyzing curriculum to see what they can do better," Knight said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.