Hiding dropouts, helping graduates, or both?

In 2018, new rules will change the way Florida public schools calculate graduation rates. They will have to include students who transfer to private online learning providers late in their academic careers.

TC Palm reported the change could cause graduation rates to dip 2 or 3 percentage points in some districts. A Tallahassee Democrat report from last year suggests the impact could be substantial in districts like Leon County, where graduation rates have surged.

But other districts may feel no effect at all. That’s because they don’t use the system described this spring by the Bradenton Herald. Districts would pay online learning providers like Smart Horizons Career Online Education something like $1,295 per student. Students would transfer from their public schools to the online vendor, in whole or in part, depending on whether they were likely to receive a diploma.

The Herald described it this way:

Almost all of Manatee County’s transfers at the end of the year are students who were dual-enrolled in Smart Horizons, an accredited online private school, during the second semester of their senior year, Greene said. Smart Horizons students take electives and career-training courses while at the same time taking core classes in a Manatee high school, completing remediation and retaking the state test.

If the student never passes the state test, has a 2.0 grade-point average in their core classes and successfully completes the Smart Horizons career training program, they will be transferred out of Manatee schools at the end of the year and earn a diploma from Smart Horizons. If they pass the state test while in Smart Horizons, they will earn a diploma from a Manatee high school, and the program will have served as a backup plan to ensure the student doesn’t join the ranks of the degree-less, Greene said.

The Treasure Coast newspapers talked to districts and online providers. They argued students are better off getting a high school diploma than languishing in their late high school years struggling to overcome must-pass state assessments. Many never pass the tests, so they drop out.

For its part, Smart Horizons has partnerships with about 25 Florida school districts and serves about 1,000 seniors, said Howard Liebman, the school’s superintendent and CEO.

Public-school superintendents have expressed concerns about the new rule, but otherwise it has no effect on the school, Liebman said.

“If school districts stopped working with us, there would be 1,000 more students out there who are high-school dropouts,” Liebman said. “You can’t expect every single student that’s a senior is going to be effective on the state assessment.”

There are two issues here.

First, districts have an incentive to juke the stats. Higher graduation rates help schools’ letter grades. Good letter grades qualify schools for recognition funding and free them from certain state regulations. Poor letter grades can lead to closures, takeovers or charter school conversions.

Lawmakers proposed the new rule to ensure all students count when the state doles out those consequences. Students who transfer to private schools right before the end of their senior year wouldn’t disappear from the district’s ledger. They would count as non-graduates at the public school they attended for most of their high school careers.

In other words, the rule is one attempt to curb the gaming of graduation rates, a trend that’s prompted some people to question whether a high school diploma still means what it’s supposed to mean.

On the other hand, Liebman has a point. If students wind up dropping out, they likely lose out on college and job chances, even if they earn GEDs later. For those students, it’s possible to see how a private diploma from Smart Horizons might look like a better option. The new rule wouldn’t necessarily close that avenue. But it would take away a major incentive for districts to offer students that option for free.

And still, other avenues exist. This year’s legislative change came after ProPublica reported some districts encouraged students to enroll in charter schools that cater to would-be dropouts. Since charter schools are public schools, those students would still count toward their districts’ overall graduation rates. But they wouldn’t count against the district-run public school they previously attended. An earlier version of the legislative proposal would have treated students who transferred to alternative charter schools the same way it would treat students who transferred to private contractors like Smart Horizons.

However, the version that ultimately passed left out charter schools.

Those charter schools fill a niche similar to Smart Horizons. They serve students on the margins and help them get diplomas. Several years ago, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers laid out recommendations for overseeing those schools. The goal is to provide struggling students other paths to graduation, but also to make sure the diplomas they ultimately receive are meaningful.

That’s the challenge. Some students need other options to get through school. But they also need assurance those options truly prepare them for what comes next.