LARGO — The Pinellas County school district earned some unwelcome national attention Wednesday after researchers said it graduated a lower rate of black males than any large district in the United States.
Just 21 percent of black males earned regular diplomas in 2008 after four years of study, compared to 50 percent of white males and a national average of 47 percent, according to the Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation for Public Education.
Palm Beach and Duval counties fared only slightly better for black males in the analysis, at 22 and 23 percent respectively, while Hillsborough graduated 35 percent.
Pinellas immediately challenged the report, saying the figures were inaccurate and unfair. Hillsborough officials also questioned the report's conclusions.
"We don't mind being measured, but let's report the truth," said Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen, calling the foundation's methods "totally nonstatistical."
But district officials acknowledged that Florida will move by 2012 to a tougher national standard for calculating graduation rates. That formula will exclude special diplomas and students who earn a GED or adult education diploma, just as the foundation did.
Michael Holzman, a research consultant for the Schott Foundation, said he simply divided the number of standard diplomas awarded in 2008 by the number of students who entered high school four years earlier.
Using that formula, Florida ranks second-worst in the nation in graduating black males at 37 percent. Only New York, at 25 percent, does worse.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University used a similar approach in 2007 when they labeled many Florida high schools "dropout factories." Then, too, district officials objected.
"We do the same thing with all 50 states," Holzman said. "Everyone wants to have different diplomas put in or calculated in a different way. But that's not going to change Pinellas' ranking, because I'd do it for everyone."
Still, that's not the formula Florida uses right now. And Pinellas officials offered two other graduation rates for its black male students in 2008.
The district said 50 percent of such students graduated that year under the state's traditional calculation, which includes GEDs and diplomas for special-needs students. It said the figure would have been 47 percent under a transitional formula now in use, which excludes GED and adult education diplomas.
Either way, Pinellas said it improved its graduation rate for black males by 6 percentage points in 2009.
"Just looking at (the foundation's) methodology, they do it a very old-fashioned way," said Octavio Salcedo, the district's testing director. "That's just not how Florida does it or how our district does it."
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday, Janssen said her district has worked hard to improve its graduation rates, to introduce new programs for underachieving students and to build trust with the black community.
"There is a gap. It's not where we need to be, but we are moving it," Janssen said. "This is heartbreaking to have someone just throw this out there."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.