What is the graduation rate in Florida's high schools? It depends on whom you ask. And that's ridiculous. No measurement is a more important indicator of the health of the public school system than the percentage of students it graduates into college or careers. It shouldn't be that hard to come up with a common calculation that could be used by every school district, every state and the federal government.
It is commonly — and erroneously — assumed that a graduation rate is based on the number of students who enter high school compared with the number who graduate four years later. But many states, including Florida, have used rules that don't count all students or use other means to pump up their statistics. To make meaningful comparisons with other states is virtually impossible.
That is about to change, thanks to federal rules that all states must follow. And graduation rates will appear to drop. Under Florida's current rules, for example, Pinellas' graduation rate reached a high of 80.1 percent this year (the same as the state overall). But running some initial numbers, Pinellas officials believe the rate would have been 69.5 percent following the federal formula. Hillsborough, where the rate is 84.3 percent under Florida's current formula, did not offer its own federal calculation. However, the rate would likely have dropped to 70.9 percent, according to a Times analysis that looked at two changes expected under the new federal rules. Mainly, Florida's formula simply doesn't count thousands of students who struggle but transfer into adult education programs in hopes of earning a GED. Whether they drop out or earn a GED, they are not part of the formula.
Under the federal formula, there will an incentive to keep those struggling students in the classroom and help them earn degrees. Just as important, the federal formula will end a world of make-believe. It will allow a direct comparison of how well different states are doing at graduating their students into adult life. Comparing apples to apples ought to produce a better consensus on what works in public education — and what doesn't.