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Orlando Sentinel.

Florida's rate of graduations worst in U.S.
November 21, 2002

By Letitia Stein | Sentinel Staff Writer

For many of Central Florida's 9-year-old children, the words you are now reading are nothing more than letters on a screen. They simply can't read.

That's why Orlando Sentinel Communications has launched an ambitious project called "Reading by Nine." During the next several years, we will follow an innovative team of teachers and monitor their progress. Read more about the Reading by Nine program.
Florida's high-school graduation rate ranks dead last in the nation, according to a conservative research group challenging the state's increasingly rosy figures.

The Manhattan Institute, a supporter of Gov. Jeb Bush's education-reform policies, released a report this morning that places Florida's graduation rate 50th -- behind Georgia, the District of Columbia, Arizona, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Based on graduation figures from the 2000 school year, barely half of Florida's students earned diplomas, according to the report, while New Jersey led the nation with an 87 percent graduation rate.

In 41st-ranked Mississippi, 63 percent of students earned diplomas in four years.

Researchers said demographics likely factored into the state's performance. Historically, black and Hispanic students, who account for nearly half of the state's students, graduate in fewer numbers.

But the institute also found that Florida's graduation rate of white students was 60 percent -- ranked last among the 37 states that broke down the numbers by race.

Researcher Jay Greene said Florida does worse than other states with large numbers of immigrants like Texas and California. The reason, he said, may be Florida's system of dividing school districts along county lines.

"We find a very strong relation to graduation rates is school district size," said Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "Florida has some of the largest school districts in the country, both in terms of student size and geographic mass."

He suggested that the state's large school districts have become unwieldy and should be disbanded, the kind of anti-bureaucracy argument that the state's Republican-controlled Legislature might embrace.

Instead, the report touched off debate over the dismal state of education in Florida's public schools. While graduation rates have been rising during the past three years, even official state statistics show Florida's graduation rates fall far below other states.

And another independent analysis last May by Postsecondary Education Opportunity, a research publication, found Florida 's graduation rate matched the 55 percent calculated by the Manhattan Institute, but ranked Florida 44th in the nation instead of 50th.

Bush said Wednesday that the differences in statistics show that calculations vary and don't reflect the state's progress.

"State-to-state comparisons are difficult," said Bush, who met in Tallahassee on Wednesday with school officials from around the state. "If other states don't have exit tests, and they have low standards and they have grade inflation and they are just passing kids along, it doesn't necessarily mean they're adding much value."

State education officials disputed the methodology used by researchers at the Manhattan Institute, which compared federal data on freshman class sizes in each state -- adjusted for changes in the population and transfer students -- with the number of diplomas awarded four years later.

"He actually estimates the beginning group, and so he's getting into an awfully fudgy scenario here with these numbers," said Bill Edmonds, spokesman for the Florida Board of Education.

The state used a similar reporting formula before the 1998-1999 school year, before switching to a calculation that was considered to be more accurate that tracks entering students throughout high school.

"We don't do estimates, we do calculations and it's a world of difference," Edmonds said.

Researchers said the 7 percentage-point difference between the Manhattan Institute's calculations and the state Department of Education's graduation rate of 62.3 percent was due to the state's inclusion of GED recipients.

This fall, the nonprofit Educational Testing Service released a report showing that graduation rates nationally have been stagnant since the 1970s, despite ever increasing annual statistics released by states. The false increases reflected a rising number of GED recipients, according to chief researcher Paul Barton.

"When you add the GED in there, it tends to make the problem look less critical in people's eyes," said Jay Smink, executive director National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University. "Although there is value to getting a GED, I don't want to downplay that, but it is not a high school diploma and it sends a different message to employers."

In Florida, GED recipients accounted for 4.35 percent of graduates counted in the 2001-02 rate of 67.9 percent.

Another factor could play a more dramatic role in deflating the gradation figures for the Class of 2003. For the first time, students must pass the state's accountability exam to earn a traditional diploma.

"Your going to have a percentage of kids that have grade points of 2.0 or better that have met the required number of credits for graduation who many not test well for a variety of reasons," said Principal Chuck Paradiso at Osceola High School. He estimated that about 20 percent of seniors at the school had failed a component of the exam. "These young people are going to be deprived of their diplomas."

Bob Mahlburg of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at 407-931-5934 or

©2002 Orlando Sentinel



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