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By Lee Logan March 3, 2010

Crist claims highest graduation rate ever

In this final State of the State address on March 2, 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist highlighted Florida's progress in many areas. In addition to lower crime rates and money to restore the Everglades, Crist devoted a significant portion of his speech to education.

Among other statistics, Crist made this superlative claim: "Our graduation rate is the highest it's ever been."

We figured this statement came with an unspoken asterisk similar to weather records ("since official records began") or baseball statistics ("the Modern Era"). There probably was a graduation rate in 1845 when Florida became a state, but it makes little sense to compare it to today's rate.

Despite the statistical obstacles, we wanted to know: Is Florida's graduation rate at its highest point ever?

Starting in 1975, there are three years with higher graduation rates than the current year. But previous calculations varied widely and comparing those rates with those from the Modern Era simply isn't valid.

Now, the Modern Era of Florida's graduation rate began in the 1998-99 school year, when the state began tracking groups of students instead of simply dividing the number of diplomas by the freshman class four years earlier. Previous formulas did not account for transfer students and also counted more groups of students as earning diplomas.

The More Accurate Modern Era began in 2004-05, when a new measure stopped including GEDs in the rate. So "ever" in Crist's quote means five years, or at best 10.

In addition, there are several groups that measure graduation rates. The conservative Manhattan Institute think tank publishes one. Education Week's rate is oft-quoted in the media. Both of those rates, though, use federal data to estimate freshman class sizes and then compare those numbers to diplomas awarded four years later. From 1998 until 2009, Florida used a method considered more accurate that tracks groups of freshman students, or "cohorts," throughout high school.

The U.S. Department of Education will require all states to move to a standard system by next school year. For the transition, Florida has moved to a similar "cohort" rate developed by the National Governors Association in 2005. Unlike the 1998 rate, it only counts diplomas and does not include students who earned a GED.

Okay, enough about the methodology. On to the numbers! Under the 1998 rubric, Florida's graduation rate has steadily increased every year, except for a dip in 2005-06. It rose from 60.2 percent to 78.6 percent in 2008-09 -- the highest under that formula.

For the NGA calculation -- which is the figure trumpeted by Crist's office in December 2009 as the "highest ever" -- Florida's rate has increased from 69.7 percent in 2004-05 to 76.3 percent last year. Again, that topped the mercury level on the graduation rate thermometer.

"Which sounds pretty good," said University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn. "But there's a caveat."

Dorn says the increased graduation rate corresponds closely with an increase in students who received a diploma even after failing the FCAT three times. Such students can replace their FCAT scores with SAT scores of 410 for reading and 370 for math. (The number of those degrees jumped from 569 in 2004-05 to 9,410 last year.) Without those degrees included, last year's rate falls to 71.2 percent. It's still the highest ever, Dorn says, "by about a hair."

State Department of Education spokesman Tom Bulter defended keeping those students in the count. Under state law, they received standard diplomas. "It really is a process of law," he said.

In his speech to lawmakers, Crist claimed the state's graduation rate is "the highest it's ever been." And several formulas say that's true -- to varying degrees. But Joe Citizen doesn't think of "ever" as beginning in 2005, or even 1999. We understand that accurate statistics only go back so far, but Crist could have been more clear. We rate his statement Mostly True.

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Update: This item was updated on March 4, 2010, to clarify University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn's position on graduation rates.

Our Sources

Gov. Charlie Crist, prepared remarks for State of the State address, March 2, 2010

Governor's office, "Florida's graduation rate hits highest point ever," Dec. 4, 2009.

Florida Department of Education, "Florida Public High School Graduation Rates, 2008-09," November 2009.

Florida Department of Education, "Importance of the Grade 10 FCAT," November 2009.

Florida Department of Education, "Graduation Rates by District, as of 1/09/09," last updated Jan. 13, 2009.

University of South Florida professor Sherman Dorn, "Inflation of Official Florida Graduation Rates," June 29, 2006.

Interview with South Florida professor Sherman Dorn, March 2, 2010.

Interview with Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler, March 3, 2010.

St. Petersburg Times' Gradebook blog, "Florida's graduation rates look terrible, again (depending on whom you ask)," June 9, 2009.

Orlando Sentinel, "Florida's rate of graduations worst in U.S.," Nov. 21, 2002, accessed via Nexis.

Florida Department of Education, "Graduation Rates, Historical Summary, Florida Public Schools," accessed March 3, 2010.

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