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Pasco GOP misstates school dropout rate

In the runup to Tuesday's election, the Pasco Republican Party sent out a brochure touting its local candidates, including superintendent Heather Fiorentino.

But in praising Fiorentino's leadership, the party overstated one of the district's successes. The flier, which Fiorentino approved, claims that "Pasco's dropout rate has declined 37 percent."

Not so, according to the data.

After Fiorentino took office, Pasco's dropout rate rose from 3.5 percent in 2004 to 4.2 percent for the next two years, then fell back to 3.5 percent in 2007. That last dip is a decline of 16.7 percent.

So where did the 37 percent figure come from? That's the decrease in the raw number of dropouts, from 835 in 2006-07 to 521 last school year. The Florida Department of Education has not yet calculated the dropout rate for last school year because it is still vetting those numbers for a final 2007-08 report due in mid November.

With larger enrollment and fewer dropouts, the rate is poised to go down again, but not likely by 37 percent.

Fiorentino contends that the accomplishment shouldn't get lost in the wording.

"While the term used should have been 'drop-out number' rather than 'drop-out rate,' an unintentional oversight related to semantics should not be used to diminish the importance of this dramatic improvement," she said in an e-mail to the Times. "I hope my opponent and our entire community will join me in celebrating the hard work and dedicated efforts of our teachers, support team and administrative staff that has led to this remarkable achievement."

But challenger Stephen Donaldson and some of his backers have seized upon what they're calling "fuzzy math" to accuse the incumbent of boosting her record.

"I just can't find 37 percent," Donaldson said. "I would just stick that one in the Truth-O-Meter."

They also observe that Pasco's four-year graduation rate has decreased from 76.5 percent in 2005 to 73.7 percent in 2007, while the state's graduation rate has inched up from 71.9 percent to 72.4 percent over the same time.

That's not true improvement in their books.

Pasco's growth in student population gives rise to a paradox, however: Even as the graduation rate has declined a bit, the raw number of graduates has increased.

Fiorentino points to those raw numbers — fewer dropouts, more graduates and more students retained to repeat a grade — as proof that Pasco schools are working to keep students on track toward graduation with the skills they need.

She speaks of the district's move to offer more career academies as a way to further battle the boredom that often pushes teens out the high school door.

Indeed, one of the key reasons behind teens dropping out is "disengagement," said Sam Drew, associate director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

It's not a one-day decision, he said, and the path to dropping out might begin before a student ever enters school. The risk factors fall into four categories — student, family, community and school — and it's a combination of these that compound over time.

Dropout prevention, as a result, is a long-range project, too. He said a decrease in the number of dropouts should not be discounted, because it means progress toward improving the graduation rate — a national concern amplified Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education's new rules requiring high schools to improve their dropout rates among all demographic groups in order to achieve "adequate yearly progress" status.

Since taking office, Fiorentino has hired a new dropout prevention coordinator who has worked to combat the dropout problem. She mentioned one effort in particular.

"Specifically, our graduation enhancement coaches are diligent in meeting the individual needs of our at-risk students," she said.

So, yes, the dropout picture has improved in Pasco schools. But the Republican Party, with Fiorentino's blessing, has stretched too far in claiming the dropout rate has dropped by 37 percent.

The final rate will be known in a few weeks, but it won't be close to that number. In the meantime, we find this miscalculation — saying rate instead of total number of dropouts — to be significant enough that we rate the claim FALSE.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

The statement

"Pasco's dropout rate has declined 37 percent."

Pasco County Republican Party mailing

The ruling

The dropout rate dipped a little bit the previous year, but the GOP's wording is way off. It's the raw number of dropouts — not the dropout rate — that has fallen 37 percent.

Pasco GOP misstates school dropout rate 10/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 7:12pm]

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