Study says Florida has worst high school graduation rate in U.S.
November 21, 2002
By Kellie Patrick and Bill Hirschman
Just over half of Florida's public school students earned a standard diploma in four years, giving the state the lowest graduation rate in the country, according to a study released today.
But the Florida Board of Education vehemently disputes that claim, saying the researchers' estimates are faulty and other states' statistics aren't trustworthy enough for a fair comparison.
Fifty-five percent of Florida high school students who should have graduated in 2000 earned standard diplomas, according to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
The national average was 69 percent.
"It certainly does paint a disturbing picture of Florida education," said Marcus Winters, a researcher with the conservative think tank, which has an office in Davie.
The state's computations say 62 percent of Florida students graduated in 2000.
"We don't do estimates of the graduation rate, we calculate the graduation rate, and that's a world of difference," said Florida Board of Education spokesman Bill Edmonds.
"Putting Florida at the bottom, that's ridiculous," he said. "You would guess those states that have the hardest time are those that are largely rural, with a high rate of poverty."
State statisticians track individual students using student identification numbers to count how many students complete high school four years after they enter as freshmen, including students who earned special diplomas and GEDs within four years of their freshman year.
The Manhattan Institute compared the number of freshmen in 1996 with the number of graduates in 2000. Privacy laws kept them from accessing individual student records. The Institute did not count those who earned GEDs or those who needed an extra semester or year to earn a full-fledged diploma.
Winters said counting GED recipients as graduates is not the most accurate picture of high schools' accomplishments: "These are dropouts who took it upon themselves to earn a certificate."
Edmonds disagreed: "I just really think he's introducing a value judgment here that is inappropriate. He is saying people who take the GED are losers, just like dropouts."
Even without counting GED recipients, Florida's 2000 graduation rate would have been 65 percent, he said.
Accurate comparisons of graduation rates are questionable because each state's definition of "graduated" varies, said Beth Young of the National Center for Education Statistics.
Florida requires 24 credits to graduate -- the highest in the nation. Three states, including California, require 13. Not all states require students to pass a test of basic skills to graduate, as Florida does with its 10th-grade FCAT.
The key to eventual graduation lies with how a school deals with incoming ninth-graders, said Miramar High School Principal David Gordon.
"The transition from middle school to high school is very difficult," Gordon said.
There is also the stress of 14- and 15-year-olds socially interacting with 18-, 19-, even 20-year-olds in high school.
In fact, the percentage of ninth-graders being held back a year in Broward has risen to 30 percent, said Peggy Thurston, who tracks dropout programs for Broward. Some will drop out, but others simply graduate a year late, and remain uncounted in the institute's study.
Broward schools have invested increasing amounts of money and staff into programs focusing on freshmen behind in reading and math. Many are assigned one-on-one mentors; others drill on computers that focus on material they don't know.
While Florida educators doubt the situation is as disappointing as the institute claims, they blame several factors for a poor showing:
a large minority and low-income population that traditionally drops out at a higher rate than average.
thousands of students who either do not speak English, are still learning English or who live in homes where English isn't the primary language.
thousands of students who move in and out of schools. Studies show mobility undercuts student learning.
classes with more than 40 students for every teacher, in some cases larger than college classes, reducing chances for individual attention.
The Manhattan Institute study doesn't explain why Florida's rate is so low, but future research will, Winters said.
But those at the think tank have a theory: Florida's countywide school districts are too large. Large districts are not as responsive to the needs of individual schools or to parents and students, Winters said. It also takes longer for such large institutions to address problems.
The institute is monitoring the effects of Gov. Jeb Bush's education reforms, which include doling out school grades based on students' standardized test scores and granting vouchers when schools don't meet state standards. The institute moved its education research arm to Davie to keep tabs on Florida, a state whose reforms the rest of the nation is watching and, in some cases, emulating.
Bill Hirschman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4513.