As the Times, the Orlando Sentinel and other papers are reporting, the high school graduation rate for Florida’s public schools climbed by about 4% in 2011-12 from the (federally-defined) graduation rate reported for 2010, from 71% to 75% (rounding up in each case). More importantly, this is a substantial leap from the (federally-defined) graduation rate in 2006-07 of 60%.
What pops out at me? First, this is a substantial one-year jump and very large five-year jump. You can look into the report on the state department’s publications page for some of the disaggregated breakdowns, but it’s a broad-based increase no matter how you look at it, whether by demographics or by county. The increased graduation rate for each of the larger counties is close to the statewide total.
Second, the overall increase is an across-the-board increase, not a reduction in prior substantial gaps by race/ethnicity and sex. Overall, the graduation rate in the 2011-12 cohort for females was 79%, against 70% for males, which is a slight narrowing of the overall gender gap across the five years reported. The largest gender graduation gap is among African-American students: 70% graduation for females, 57% for males. Again, this is a slight narrowing of what had been a 14% difference in 2007-08. Let me be clear: the across-the-board increase is very, very good. But it is not a closure in the existing gaps.
Third, the 15% increase over five years can be accounted for partly (but not entirely) by a decreased reliance of counties on adult GED programs. In 2007-08, 8% of all diplomas came from various special-diploma categories (W07, W27, W10, W45, WGA, and WGD, only one of which led to a standard academic diploma). In 2011-12, only a little over 3% of all diplomas came from those special-diploma categories.1 I argued for years that counting GEDs as equivalent to standard diplomas gave schools a perverse incentive to shove difficult-to-teach adolescents out the door, and after the federal regulations for a new graduation rate was published in 2008, we have seen a substantial drop in the use of GEDs and other special diplomas as a substitute for academic diplomas. Cause and effect? No, not entirely, but I suspect that as administrators realized they could no longer hide dropouts/pushouts through adult GED enrollment, some of the behavior was driven by the coming reporting loophole closure. This is definitely good news for students, not only because regular academic diplomas have much higher value for graduates but also because of the greater cost for taking the GED test going forward. More importantly, this is a reason to be skeptical of NCLB waiver plans that do not distinguish between academic diplomas and GEDs (and other non-standard diplomas).
Fourth, education spin doctors are going to attribute the rest of the increase to various asserted single causes. Do not trust single-cause explanations. Some part of the increase may be due to various policies such as better reading instruction in elementary grades, the 2002 class-size amendment, or other specifics that people may point to. But it is impossible to disentangle them, or to distinguish between them and the possible effects of the recession: in lowering opportunities for full-time work for teenagers and in decreasing the number of families in Florida (and thus students) tied to the construction industry. Both are likely to result in some increase in the graduation rate, in the first instance by giving teens an incentive to stay in school (or rather a lower incentive to leave) and in the second by changing the demographics of Florida’s teenagers. But my point here is not to quantify those effects, rather to caution anyone against a single, specific explanation of the increased graduation rate. (Reporters, I’m looking at you here!)
Addendum: Bob Sikes (and the comment by Bryan Bouton below) imply that there is something untrustworthy about the report because it was released a few days after the U.S. Department of Education released the first table of state-level graduation rates using the 2008 regulatory definition. Given the fact that the report requires several months to prepare, and this is the type of information that usually has drafts bounced back and forth between the state and individual school districts, I am skeptical of evidence-less claim of falsification. Can I believe that the release of the report was sped up after the FDOE knew of the graduation-rate report that was going to paint Florida in a bad light? Sure. Should I be more skeptical of the content of the report as a result of the timing? I think we need more than casual suspicions for that.
- This 5% drop in the proportion of diplomas coming from special-diploma categories does not mean that 5% of the increase in the longitudinal federal graduation rate is from that change. Different data elements… [↩]