Fla. Plan Would Cut Graduation Rate Sharply

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Florida's release this month of recalculated high school graduation rates showing that fewer than half the state's students complete high school in four years has local administrators there combing through record books and crunching numbers, hoping to find flaws in the state's math.

The state education department released the recommended revised graduation rates Feb. 3, fulfilling the legislature's request last spring that the agency devise a more accurate method of calculating how many freshmen make it to graduation day in a traditional four-year cycle.

Under the new formula, which still must receive official approval from the legislature, state education officials say only 48.6 percent of students who entered high school during the 1994-95 school year graduated in 1998; previous calculations had listed the rate as 71.9 percent. Florida districts have since faced a public relations nightmare: trying to explain graduation rates that plummeted by 20 or 30 percentage points overnight.

"This number is not acceptable, and it makes us look really bad right now," said David Buckles, the superintendent of the 12,500-student Putnam County district in central Florida. The 1998 graduation rate for the rural district plunged from 57.1 percent to 34.9 percent under the department's new calculation, the lowest in Florida. Mr. Buckles contends that data that went into the formulation of the new figure were wrong.

"You can draw a lot of different conclusions from the lowering of the state's calculations," Mr. Buckles added. "We hope it's not political posturing, but if it is, it will bear itself out."

'Good Math'

Unveiled just weeks before the start of a legislative session next month in which Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's proposal for a limited private-school-voucher program is expected to be a contentious topic, some public school leaders are greeting the new numbers with a measure of skepticism.

But the education department's decision to recalculate graduation rates was not tied to any larger political agenda, said Tom Gallagher, a Republican recently elected as the state's education commissioner. It was simply a desire to get better numbers in a state with 2.3 million students, he said.

The revision was requested by the Republican-majority legislature during the administration of the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, whom Mr. Bush succeeded.

"This isn't that all of the sudden the graduation rate dropped," Mr. Gallagher said in a recent interview. "It's that before we were using bad math, and now we're using good math."

Previously in Florida, state and district graduation rates were determined by dividing the number of students who graduated in a single year by the number of 9th graders who started high school four years before. Critics complained that the method failed to account for students who transferred into school systems as sophomores or juniors, thereby making districts in a growing state like Florida appear more successful than they actually were.

The new method was devised last fall after state education officials consulted with statisticians and representatives of local districts. Through it, the education department actually tracks individual 9th graders through high school, using a database of information provided by districts. Students who graduate after four years are included in the graduation rate. Those who transfer to different schools or districts within the state are also accounted for in the statistical analysis, Mr. Gallagher said.

States calculate graduation rates by a variety of means, but very few have the technical capacity to track individual students the way Florida has proposed, said Lee Hoffman, a program manager at the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington.

While Florida's revised statewide graduation rate of 48.6 percent is shocking, Mr. Gallagher said the new numbers should serve as "a wake-up call, if nothing else." He added: "I definitely know it's more accurate."

Still, critics ask how officials in Tallahassee can profess to accurately pinpoint the whereabouts of each high school student in the state.

"There are so many variables today in the life of a high-school-age child," said David Clark, a spokesman for the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. "Kids who move, kids who have to work, kids who are in poverty. If we track a child with no room for variation, that's a statistic that can be skewed, and we're very suspicious of it."

Increasing Standards

Numbers aside, administrators at both the state and local levels say more needs to be done to keep students in school.

Florida's graduation rate is alarmingly low by any measure, and may only get worse as the state continues to phase in higher academic expectations for students, said Dennis Smith, the superintendent of the 139,000-student Orange County district, which includes Orlando.

This spring, Florida educators will begin replacing traditional norm-referenced tests with a state test reflecting higher standards.

"It's going to become more challenging for students to get a diploma," Mr. Smith said. "There are students who aren't going to be able to meet the high standards, and then what?"

Vol. 18, Issue 23, Page 22, 28

Published in Print: February 17, 1999, as Fla. Plan Would Cut Graduation Rate Sharply
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