March 4, 2010

PolitiFact Erratum

The St. Pete Times's PolitiFact comes down today with the same ruling that I would on Governor Charlie Crist's statement that the high school graduation rate in the cohort just graduated last year is the "highest it's ever been." They rate the claim as Mostly True, and I agree.

And their reporting of my remarks when called by the reporter on the story is similarly Mostly True. (For the record, that's the way I'd rate most good reporting.) The ruling says in part, "Dorn says the state should not count students who received a diploma even after failing the FCAT three times." It is true that I pointed out that the number of students who receive an academic diploma using the SAT/ACT exemption path has ballooned in the last five years and corresponds very neatly to the rise in high school graduation over that time. However, I never said that the state should not count those graduates, and if I remember correctly reporter Lee Logan never asked me that directly in the phone interview.

On Tuesday evening, Logan e-mailed me, and after I replied with my cell phone, I pulled up the spreadsheet I'd downloaded from the FLDOE site in the fall. The state reported three different measures: the official Florida graduation rate it's used for a decade, the measure used for NCLB purposes, and a measure defined by the National Governors Association in 2005. The last addresses the concerns I and others raised 4-5 years ago about the exclusion of the dropout-to-GED path from the cohort base and the inclusion of GEDs with regular diplomas.

The SAT/ACT exemption is different. On the one hand, the idea of an SAT/ACT exemption flies in the face of the point of a graduation exam, since college admissions exams do not test what a student has learned from the high school curriculum. On the other hand, it's a political and practical safety valve since it gives students more opportunities to qualify for an academic diploma. I wish that the state had chosen other options because of the SAT/ACT-curriculum disconnect, but when faced with education policy problems legislators tend to reach for tests, some test, any test.

Trying to look at the NGA rate with/without the exemption category (WFT) is also trickier than with the GED data, since there could be a number of reasons why the use of that exemption has ballooned. Maybe there are now 9,000 high school students each year who are directed towards the SAT/ACT who really would not have graduated without the exemption, and if so the rise in the NGA represents students who would have been on the margin of receiving a standard diploma without that option. But maybe the rise is a consequence of more Florida districts paying for students to take the SAT, where students would have taken the FCAT but didn't because they had qualified through the SAT. From a student perspective, if you've failed to pass the diploma threshold in prior FCAT tries and suddenly you have an SAT score that qualifies, why take the FCAT again in your senior year? Or why try hard at it when you do take it? 

Then there's the more important question: where should we be with high school graduation? If you agree that we should include the students who qualified with an SAT or ACT score rather than a curriculum-based test, about three quarters of Florida ninth graders are graduating within four years. Using the NGA rate, of the African American students entering ninth grade in the fall of 2005, about 65% of them had graduated with a standard academic diploma by the summer of 2009. Even if you are skeptical about the inherent value of a credential, high school diplomas do serve as credentials for the job market and colleges, and someone without that credential faces significant institutional barriers to doing well as an adult. 

Update: The PolitiFact page has changed to reflect what I said more accurately. Thanks!

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Posted in Education policy on March 4, 2010 8:10 AM |