The Manatee County School District should be commended for the continuing rise in its high school graduation rate, now surpassing the statewide percentage. There are caveats, but none that diminish the success that students and educators have earned. Incredibly, the district’s rate has soared by almost 20 percentage points in the past five years, reaching a record high of 83.5 percent this year. That figure eclipses the statewide mark of 80.7 percent.
That remarkable rise can be partly attributed to the district’s expansion of student options toward capturing a standard diploma and collecting academic credits — with eight diverse paths that serve student interests and situations. Evening courses via the district’s LIFE program benefit budding adults working day jobs. Online classes through the Florida Virtual School favor youngsters who shy away from high school culture. Students eager to learn a trade can lay the foundation for those careers by taking dual-enrollment classes at Manatee Technical College.
Some of these options and others were not available to previous generations. Baby boomers generally were limited to the long established day schedule of classes in traditional subjects. The current variety of studies hook students likely to drop out had they been under schools with restricted curricula.
“We offer many different options for students to receive a diploma; it’s not a one size fits all,” Deputy Superintendent for Instructional Services Cynthia Saunders told Herald education reporter Ryan McKinnon last week.
Clearly, that approach is working well.
District Superintendent Diana Greene disputes critics who challenge the swift increase in graduation rates as bowing to pressure from the state. One teacher told McKinnon that it’s “almost impossible not to graduate.” Greene asserts the district is following the rigorous state standards, which include passage of an algebra test — and a 10th-grade English language arts course “that I guarantee you many adults could not pass.”
The state has been ramping up education standards for years along with an accountability system that demands greater student achievement, else schools that continually fail face sanctions. The state adjusted the school grading formula to include graduation rates beginning in the 2010-2011 school year, thus putting more pressure on educators to increase those rates.
After the 2010-2011 policy switch, Manatee County’s graduation rate jumped from 64.7 percent to 76.2 percent. Greene discounts the accountability system as the reason for the rise, though one principal maintains high schools put a greater focus on graduating students. Why shouldn’t they?
But that does not mean standards fell, administrators say. How could they? Those standards are set by the state, not individual schools or districts.
After the state adopted the Federal Uniform Graduation Rate in 2010 — which only counts standard diplomas and not GED’s and certificates of completion as previously included — the state recalculated past rates under the federal model all the way back to 1998. In that year, the state average stood at 52 percent, steadily rising to 80.7 percent this year. Before those federal standards were applied, Manatee County School District rates ranged from the low to mid 60s from 2003 to 2010. The first year Florida employed the federal formula, the district’s graduation rate reached 76.2 percent — from the previous year’s 64.7 percent.
Kudos to Manatee School for the Arts and State College of Florida’s Accelerated College Program, which gives students the opportunity to complete an associate’s degree at the same time they receive their high school diploma, for graduation rates of 99 percent, almost perfect. Lakewood Ranch, Braden River and Palmetto high schools scored between 90 percent and 94 percent, great marks, too.
The state has not watered down graduation standards, instead toughening them. Juggling all the graduation percentages and the scoring changes boils down to one point: More students are earning diplomas than in previous years.
Give credit where credit is due. Teachers and administrators are working harder at educating students to ensure a greater measure of life success than dropouts achieve. And more students are achieving the goal of earning a diploma.