It's no secret that Florida and its school districts are in for a shock this year when it comes to graduation rates. But a new state report suggests Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco districts will be jolted more than others.
Those three Tampa Bay area school systems take the biggest hits among the state's biggest districts when the latest graduation rates are calculated with a tough, new federal formula, a Department of Education report shows.
The 2010-11 rates fall by at least 14.9 percentage points in Pinellas and Hillsborough and 14.5 percentage points in Pasco. The state rate drops 9.5 points.
Put another way, Pinellas' graduation rate is 65.2 percent under the new formula, instead of 80.1 percent under the current one.
"I think the new figures are a more honest figure of what's happening," said Pinellas superintendent John Stewart. "I don't do the calculations … but I know that we lose more kids than 20 percent."
Hillsborough's rate under the new formula is 69.3 percent, instead of 84.3, a number that prompted the school district to email congratulatory letters to parents. Pasco's is 71.0, instead of 85.5. Hernando's is 71.5, instead of 80.4.
The state's is 70.6, instead of a highest-ever 80.1.
Unlike the current formula, the new one does not discount thousands of struggling students who transferred into adult education programs and often dropped out. It also does not count some diplomas awarded to special education students.
The DOE report echoes a Tampa Bay Times analysis in 2010 that showed some districts' grad rates fell a lot further than others once adult education transfers were factored back in. Critics say ignoring those transfers amounted to a massive loophole that padded Florida's graduation rate, which independent calculations have long found to be among the worst in the country.
The Times once again analyzed the high graduation rates in December when the DOE announced them and showed the rates dropping significantly once adult education transfers were included.
The new federal formula will be used to calculate Florida's official rates — and rates in every other state — for the 2011-12 school year.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said Friday that she has discussed the new formula with state education commissioner Gerard Robinson.
"I told him that he needs to go back and look at how they calculated it," Elia said. Two of her concerns, which she has discussed with federal officials as well, are that charter school students are included; and special education students are considered nongraduates, even after they obtain waivers that exempt them from some graduation requirements.
The 2010-11 rates, as determined by the new formula, were supposed to be used this school year to help determine whether high schools met federal "adequate yearly progress" standards. But Florida won a waiver this month from some No Child Left Behind requirements, so it's not clear whether they'll still matter there.
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Pasco officials say they have prepared for the new formula. Among other things, the district has beefed up credit recovery and other programs that aim to help kids stay on track for standard diplomas instead of going for GEDs in adult education, said district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli.
In coming months, she said, the district will have to work on perceptions that it's slipping. Higher FCAT standards were also installed for this year, which is likely to trip up test scores.
"We're going to be working a lot … to prepare our students and our stakeholders for these changes," Romagnoli said, "so they understand that it's not necessarily that our schools are performing worse … but that our standards have changed."
Elia, despite her questions about the methodology, said the Hillsborough district will redouble its efforts as well.
"It is critical to look at what has happened within each school and identify what we can do for these students so that they can graduate and go on to post-secondary education or a career," she said. "We've got to do everything we can to support students' success."
Stewart, the Pinellas superintendent, said he'll be using the new grad rates as a motivator when he talks to teachers and principals. But he said it's not just the district that should be finding ways to rise to the challenge.
It is a "message to society," he said, "to help us find solutions … to make kids want to stay in school."
Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.