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High School Graduation Rates Are Soaring, But Are The Numbers Real?

graduates in blue caps and gowns sit in a large cluster, presumably mid ceremony
Creative Commons
According to a ProPublica report, while the number of students in alternative schools grew moderately over the past 15 years, upticks occurred as new national mandates kicked in on standardized testing and graduation rates.

According to the Florida Department of Education, nearly eighty one percent of Florida teenagers earned a high school diploma last year. That makes the state's graduation rate 20 percent higher than it was a decade ago.

It mirrors a national trend--but is the news too good to be true?  

According to a recent ProPublica report, school districts may be gaming the numbers through a variety of methods. That includes placing students in "alternative" schools. Reporter Heather Vogell said some school district, including Orange County, have seen a steep increase in the number of kids who were sent to alternative schools.

"These are schools that increasingly are used for academically challenged students,” she said. “Students who have fallen far behind and sometimes enough to be not on track for graduation. The consequence of that is those kids who are most likely to bring the graduation rate down in traditional school are being sent elsewhere.”

Vogell said it’s a pattern found nationally.

Credit Lars Klove
Heather Vogell is a reporter at ProPublica. She has also reported on suspicious test scores in public schools across the nation.

“When major new accountability requirements were put into place affecting schools often you would see an uptick in these alternative school placements,” she said. “Afterwards the consequences started kicking in for schools that were failing to meet the testing benchmarks. The most recent one was when states were required to switch over all schools in the state to a standardized cohort graduation rate which left a lot less wiggle room in calculating that metric. It was harder for schools to hide if they had problems. So after each of those things, you saw more kids sort of being shuffled off to these alternative schools.”

Since the ProPublica story came out in February, Vogell says the Orange County School District and the State did take some action.

“The State Board of Education decided to investigate the potential underreporting of dropouts and the use of these charter schools to sort of massage the metrics of regular schools,” she said. "The district said that they do not endorse schools telling kids that they need to leave a school that they have a right to attend, especially to leave to go to a charter school and the school board chairman called it intolerable if it was going on."

Vogell said her takeaway from the report is that alternative schools seem to have been forgotten.

“It just seems there needs to be some sort of effort to make the regulatory framework a bit stronger to make the accountability measures a little more transparent so that policymakers and stakeholders and researchers can understand how successful or not these programs are. It seems like really that the most vulnerable students here are being failed widely.”

According to the ProPublica report, the for-profit company, "Accelerated Learning Solutions," manages seven of the 10 schools in Florida that report the most students leaving for adult education, such as GED programs.  In Florida, those students aren't counted as dropouts. ALS also operates alternative schools in Hillsborough and Miami- Dade counties. 

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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