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PolitiFact Florida: Education commissioner boasts about state's graduation rate improvements

The strengths of Florida’s K-12 education system are listed on a board during the opening day of the Education Accountability Summit last week at the St. Petersburg College Collaborative Labs in Clearwater. The three-day summit brought together state educators, government representatives, and business leaders to discuss education issues such as school grades, teacher pay, the new Common Core education standards and the assessments that will test the benchmarks.
Published Sep. 2, 2013

As Florida kids enjoyed the last lazy days of summer, political players were squabbling about a series of hot education controversies.

In a split vote, the state Board of Education decided to soften school grades. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint challenging the state's race-based education goals. Sen. Marco Rubio came out against federal Common Core standards — putting him at odds with the state's other potential Republican presidential contender, Jeb Bush. And Bush bashed conservative pundits' claims about Common Core.

Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned following allegations that he took steps to prevent a charter school led by a prominent Republican donor from getting a "C" in Indiana, where he formerly held a similar job.

But hey, nothing like a new school year for a fresh message about optimism. In a recent letter in the Miami Herald, interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote that though challenges remain, Florida's teachers and parents have many reasons to be proud.

"National rankings show that Florida is moving in the right direction. High school graduation rates continue to increase at the fastest rate in the nation, with Florida leading the nation in the rate of Hispanic graduates," she said.

We assigned ourselves some homework about the state of our state's graduation rates.

For the national comparison, the Florida Department of Education pointed in part to Education Week's "Diplomas Count" analysis of graduation rates based on standard diplomas. The most recent analysis covered 2000-10.

It is true that Florida made major gains in the graduation rate. But that's because Florida started at such an abysmally low rate: 49.9 percent in 2000, among the lowest in the country at the time. Florida's graduation rate rose to 72.9 percent in 2010 — a 23-percentage-point increase second only to Tennessee.

As for Hispanics, Florida had a 77.1 percent graduation rate — the highest in the country but barely in front of Virginia at 77 percent and Maryland at 76.7 percent.

Diplomas Count uses a formula that captures grade-to-grade promotions each year between ninth and 12th grades and graduation.

But Diplomas Count, which uses federal data, is only one way to measure graduation rates and has been criticized by some education experts. Florida's overall or Hispanic-only graduation rate can vary depending on the methodology and the years examined.

The federal government pointed us to two other ways to measure graduation rates: a new cohort method, which examines how many students who enter ninth grade graduate four years later with a standard diploma, and the average freshman graduation rate, which is an estimate of the percentage of an entering freshman class graduating in four years.

The cohort method showed for 2010-11 that Florida's overall graduation rate was 71 percent — lower than all but five states.

Since the cohort method is new, for a historical perspective we turned to the average freshman graduation rate. That data show Florida's graduation rate increased by a handful of points between 2003 and 2010, but so did some other states.

Robert Balfanz, an education expert at Johns Hopkins University, examined the data between 2006 and 2010 — the years when rates began to move nationally — and found Florida was the ninth fastest improving state.

In the case of Hispanics, under both the cohort and average freshman graduation rate methods, several states had a higher rate than Florida.

Our ruling

Florida's interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said "high school graduation rates continue to increase at the fastest rate in the nation, with Florida leading the nation in the rate of Hispanic graduates."

That's true — under the Diplomas Count measurement for 2000-10. But Stewart omitted a couple of key points: Florida's graduation rate was incredibly low and among the worst in the country in 2000 and even with the climb upward it remains below the national average.

Also, Stewart is relying on the method of calculating graduation rates that puts Florida in the best light. Other methods do not show Florida as earning the top-increase spot and do not put Florida's Hispanics at No. 1. We rate this claim Half True.

This item has been edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/Florida.

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