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Report: Transparency needed in computing Florida's graduation rates

The LeRoy Collins Institute is calling for more transparency in the way Florida determines its high school graduation rates in a new report written by two Florida State University graduate students.

Carol Weissert

In the report, "Measuring Graduation Rates in Florida: Constraints and Opportunities," the LeRoy Collins Institute both congratulated and criticized Florida's method of assessing graduation rates. Florida is currently using the "gold-standard" method of collecting individual data on students, rather than relying on cohorts or classes of students. However, the state's method of determining its self-reported graduation rates is unclear.

Florida's method is at issue because the state's self-reported high-school graduation rates are much higher than the rate calculated when using other well-accepted methods of analysis. By some measures, Florida ranks dead last in the country with graduation rates around 55 percent. In contrast, Florida's own measures show fairly robust graduation rates of more than 70 percent.

"For those wishing to use graduation rates as measures of school performance, the variance is troubling," said Carol Weissert, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute and the LeRoy Collins Eminent Scholar and Professor of Political Science at FSU. "We know that Florida's definition of graduation contributes to these differences, but it is not possible to analyze the exact impact since the numbers of these special diplomas and other details of the graduation rate computation are not readily available."

Florida has a variety of diplomas ranging from the High School Equivalency diploma (commonly known as the GED) to a certificate of completion, which is awarded when a student has taken the required classes to graduate but has not successfully passed the FCAT. These diplomas are included in Florida's computation of graduation rates and lead to higher rates than computations from other states and academics.

Jessica Ice and Joseph Wachtel, the political science doctoral students who wrote the report, said Florida's graduation rate measure is "both promising and suspicious."

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), all states must report to the federal government how well they are meeting certain goals, including high school graduation. The NCLB has had the unintended consequence of states, worried about federal funding, putting educational reputation and the appearance of high graduation rates above focusing on improving the educational system, according to the Collins Institute report.

The report also includes a comparison of graduation rates among Florida school districts using Florida Department of Education data. The variation is enormous. The schools with highest graduation rates have nearly every student completing high school. In contrast, some schools have fewer than one in three students graduating.

In studying factors that may influence graduation rates, the researchers found that spending targeted at at-risk students was not statistically significant, but total spending was significant in a negative way: For every dollar spent on the schools, the graduation rate fell. They also found that the greater the number of students in a school, the lower the graduation rate. Schools with larger numbers of low-income students also were more likely to have lower graduation rates.

The report is part of the mission of the LeRoy Collins Institute to address policy issues that are important to the future of the state of Florida. In its recent work, "Tough Choices: Shaping Florida's Future," the group examined the demands on Florida's education system and the recent changes affecting education including the Classroom Size Amendment. To view the reports, visit

"There is perhaps no more important issue to Florida's future than education," said Curt Kiser, chairman of the Collins Institute Board of Trustees. "Graduation rates are the measure of future success for each generation of Florida's citizens, and we as a society suffer when our students do not meet this important educational benchmark. Providing policymakers and the public with valid and transparent assessments of the state of education is key to both instructional progress and trust in government."

The Collins Institute is an independent, non-profit organization affiliated with the Florida university system and housed on the FSU campus.

By Jill Elish


"For those wishing to use graduation rates as measures of school performance, the variance is troubling."

Carol Weissert
FSU Department of Political Science