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Deciphering Dueling Stats on Graduation Rates

It sounded like a story guaranteed to irritate taxpayers: a national study out of Rutgers university says more and more public high school students are taking longer than four years to graduate.

Instead, they're in school for five or six -- or more --  years!

But Florida school officials say that's not a problem here. And experts say, they both may be right -- the difference may lie in some good news from the last several years.

Graduation rates are an important number because it lets us know how our high school students are doing, in terms of being ready to go to college or go into the workforce.

The Rutgers researchers say the U.S. Census data that they used is a more accurate way to measure graduation rate as it follows individuals through their lives.

They found a decline in on-time graduation through generations of high schoolers born in the 1940s to the 1980s, especially in boys and minority students.There was a definite growing trend for students to graduate well after they turned 18.

But education officials in Florida said, that's not what’s happening here.

A state education spokesman said that our four-year, on-time graduation rate got to an 11 year high in 2014, up nearly 17 points over a decade earlier, to reach 76.1 percent.

So, are four-year graduation rates going down, or up?

"Graduation rates turn out to be a lot more complicated to measure than you would think, than anybody in their right mind would ever think," says Jack Buckley -- and he should know. He's the Senior Vice President for Research for the College Board -- the organization that creates the SAT test. Previously, he was the Commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

"At NCES we had a two volume, it must have been 500 page report  on different ways to measure graduation rate," Buckley says. "It's one of the most perplexing things -- that should be simple -- that I ever worked on."

But Buckley, and other experts, say Florida has good education data, and in fact, the state has been a leader in that field.  Buckley thinks what may be happening with the discrepancy between the Rutgers study and what Florida officials are reporting is this:  ten years.

The Rutgers researchers were looking at the trends of people born over a large time period, and the trends that the Rutgers researchers measured were from people who would have graduated more than a decade ago.  Buckley says a lot has happened in that time.

"That on-time graduation rate improvement has been one of the success stories in K-12 education in the last ten years," he says.

So on-time graduation in Florida is -- contrary to the Rutgers study -- getting better. But educators will tell you, it's still not great.

Many school districts really don't keep numbers on what happens to students after four years. They know their on-time grad rate is getting better, but they don't know how many graduate in five or six  years.
Polk County, however, has started keeping detailed records, saying it’s the first step to improving a lower-than-average graduation rate.

Jacqueline Bowen is an associate superintendent in Polk County. She moved to Polk from Jacksonville schools two years ago. "I think it was at 69 percent when we got here and it's at 71 percent now," Bowen says. "We're just not satisfied. And our board has charged us with doing better."

Doing better means keeping better records. And yes, a group of kids did graduate in 5 years rather than four. Recent studies in Florida have shown  that generally around two percent of the ninth graders graduate in 5 years rather than four. And if they haven't finished in five years -- they're not likely to.

"Some students just need to be a totally different environment or learning in a different way," Bowen says. "What we have focused on the past two years is strengthening our guidance and counseling sessions with kids, to get them on the right pathway."

Bowen says many kids have difficulties because of the standardized tests in math and English that they have to pass in order to graduate now.  She says the Polk school district is reaching out to the hundreds of kids that left school without a diploma, coaching them on ways that they can graduate successfully. Bowen says, "You just don't give up."

Jack Buckley says because of  intervention by people like Bowen, things are moving in the right direction.

"We keep hearing that other test scores are flat, and other achievement measures haven't moved much. But we are getting a lot of kids through high school with a real diploma. That is a fact in our states."

He says improvement has also come from keeping better stats. The next time experts will debate the numbers will be in December, when the new graduation rates come out.

Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.