North Florida’s Suwannee County School District posted an almost perfect record for kids earning diplomas last school year — a 96.2-percent graduation rate showing students met coursework, testing and other requirements.
But the impressive graduation rate in Suwannee and other Florida districts also is the result of a math equation that parents, educators and politicians may not have noticed:
Tens of thousands of Florida teens are eliminated from the formula used to calculate final graduation rates, creating a more glowing picture of the percentage of kids graduating, state data show.
Last month, then-Gov. Rick Scott and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart boasted that the state’s four-year graduation rate had reached a 15-year high, with a statewide figure of 86.1 percent in 2017-18.
“I could not be more proud of Florida’s students and their educators who have demonstrated unrivaled dedication to excellence,” Stewart said in a written statement.
At the same time, nearly 60,000 students across Florida were removed from the graduation-rate calculations that year. That amounts to about 22 percent of the original group of students statewide –268,579 kids — who started out in 9th grade four years earlier and were on the road to graduation, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Education.
What happened to those 60,000 kids? For the most part, they were categorized simply as withdrawing from their high school.
Some transferred to other Florida districts or out of state; others enrolled in private schools or left their public school to be home-schooled. Some students died, according to the state data.
What the public doesn’t know is whether those kids ever graduated, particularly those students still living in Florida.
This sort of numeric fiddling with graduation rates has been going on for years – in fact, it’s part of a federal formula on calculating graduation rates.
But the removals have not been without controversy. Nationwide, investigations and even scandals have erupted over fishy practices and graduation-rate fudging, according to news accounts, even as the officially reported high school graduation rates have soared in recent years.
In Florida last month, then-Education Commissioner Pam Stewart accused Manatee County School District Superintendent Cynthia Saunders of “fraudulently inflating graduation rates,” while serving as Deputy Superintendent of Instruction, according to the Bradenton Times.
Saunders allegedly instructed staff to improperly label students as withdrawing to be home-schooled, so they wouldn’t count against the district’s graduation rate, according to the newspaper. Those accusations span from 2014 to 2016.
Manatee School District spokesman Mike Barber said he could not comment on the accusations, but that Saunders has had nearly 30 years of a “spotless record” in various education roles.
“Academically, we are improving as a school district, and she (Saunders) is looking forward to clearing her name,” Barber said.
In 2017, the State Board of Education also became concerned about several other districts, where high numbers of struggling seniors transferred out in the final month of the academic year, according to news reports, raising questions about whether those transfers were meant to boost graduation rates.
In 2013-14, Florida’s Auditor General reported that the Putnam County School District improperly removed students from the graduation formula or provided no evidence to show the students had enrolled elsewhere to earn a high school diploma.
The Auditor General said the district should improve procedures and ensure staffers provide proper documentation before removing students from graduation calculations.
In Suwannee School District, Janene Fitzpatrick, the assistant superintendent of instruction, said the district makes sure documentation is provided on withdrawing students and that they keep records, and undergo audits.
If a student withdraws from his or her high school to go out of state, the Suwannee district wouldn’t track them and wouldn’t know if they ever graduate, Fitzpatrick said. But if they stay in the county and choose to be home-schooled, the district is there to assist, such as helping students sign up for virtual classes.
“If they are withdrawing from the high school, we ask: Do they have a plan and where are they going. We’re not going to give up that easy,” Fitzpatrick said. “In our district, students are not forgotten about.”
The Suwannee school district in 2017-18 had a higher-than-average percentage of high school students who started 9th grade four years ago and then left to be home-schooled. Those students were then taken out of the graduation formula, which helped boost the district’s graduation rate.
In fact, several dozen Florida districts also had higher-than-average percentages of students moving on to become home-schooled, according to the state data.
Here’s how the graduation rate formula works for school districts in 2017-18, according to the Florida Department of Education:
It starts with an initial “cohort” of kids – the pool of students who were first-time 9th graders in 2014-15. Other kids transfer into that pool as 10th, 11th, and 12th graders if they are on the same schedule to graduate.
That cohort then gets “adjusted,” meaning students are removed from the formula when they withdraw from their high school for a variety of reasons, including going to other public schools, out-of-state schools, private schools and getting home-schooled. Some students die.
So in Suwannee’s case, the original pool of students on the road to graduation was 609 kids. But 265 students were removed. That left only 344 students in the original pool, for calculating the graduation rate.
The total number of graduates in the district, 331, was then divided by the smaller pool of 344. The final figure: A 96.2-percent graduation rate.
In the Osceola County School District, the impact was much bigger. The district’s original pool of students was 6,955. But after all the “adjustments,” 2,146 students were removed and wouldn’t count in the final graduation calculations. The district ended up with an 89.3 percent graduation rate.
Leah Torres, director of research, evaluation and accountability in the Osceola District, said the district has a very transitional population and kids do transfer elsewhere, which impacts the pool used in calculating graduation rates.
Students do get removed from the graduation pool, Torres said, but wherever they go, she said, “The goal is that they graduate.”
The state Department of Education provided data to the Florida Phoenix, but didn’t provide comments for this story by deadline.