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Florida dead last in graduation rate study

A prominent researcher has stirred up the debate over Florida's high school graduation rate, ranking the state dead last in the nation based on a new way of looking at the data.

Researcher Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute analyzed graduation numbers for the class of 2000 and concluded that 55 percent of Florida's students graduated in the traditional four years. That's well below the national average of 69 percent and close to numbers estimated by the federal government. But it's well below the state's own calculation of 67.9 percent.

Why the difference? It all comes down to who gets counted.

Students who don't graduate but who acquire a high school diploma by passing a General Educational Development test are counted as graduates by the state. Greene does not count them.

"Students who get a GED are not, properly speaking, high school graduates," Greene said. "To include those numbers and to take credit for them as graduates, we're obscuring more than we're revealing."

Florida education officials disagree with Greene's analysis.

"Getting a GED is preferable to dropping out without any kind of diploma," said John Winn, deputy secretary for the Florida Board of Education.

After Greene's analysis, the state looked to see what Florida's graduation rate would be if GED students were eliminated from the calculation. Winn said that would drop Florida's graduation rate from 67.9 percent to 65 percent, which is still much higher than Greene's conclusion.

More than 36,000 Florida students passed GED tests last year, more than in most states.

Greene sees the GED test as a lesser option. He cites studies that indicate that the earning potential for students with diplomas gained by that method more closely resembles earnings for dropouts.

Florida changed the way it calculates dropout rates four years ago, creating one of the most sophisticated tracking systems in the nation.

The old system was a rough estimate. The state counted the students in a ninth-grade class and counted the graduates four years later. The state did little to account for all the students moving in and out of schools, students who took more than four years to graduate and students who died. It was conceivable that a school could have a graduation rate greater than 100 percent if a lot of students transferred into a school during the four years.

Florida's new system tracks actual students, using identification codes. Theoretically the state can account for all ninth-graders over their four years of high school.

Greene's system resembles Florida's old system, though he does account for growth. Because he aims to make national comparisons, Greene was unable to use Florida's tracking system because many states don't have such a system.