black_graduates.jpgTALLAHASSEE (AP) _Florida's high school graduation rate jumped by 3 percent points to a record 76.3 percent this year, state education officials said Friday, but a critic said the state is still a "dropout factory."

Officials credited the improvement largely to minority students. The rate for blacks increased 4.1 percentage points to 64.9 percent. The rate for Hispanics grew by 4.5 percentage points to 72.1 percent. Those increases compare to a 2.3 percentage point gain for non-Hispanic whites to 83.1 percent.

“Florida's education system continues to be a rising star in our nation, and our teachers and school leaders should be commended,'' Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. “Our graduation rate is one of many recent measurements showing the progress we are making.''

Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith called the results “encouraging'' although “there is still much more work to be done.''

The 2009 figure is up even though Florida this year stopped counting GED recipients in the calculation.

Not everyone, though, was celebrating.

“It's sort of absurd to uncork champagne,'' said state Sen. Dan Gelber, a longtime critic of the state's school system. “By every study we're a dropout factory.''

The Miami Beach Democrat, who's also seeking his party's nomination for attorney general, noted that Florida's graduation rate as calculated by state education officials is typically much higher than in national rankings. National studies often place Florida at or near the bottom.

In June, the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education determined 57.5 percent of Florida students completed high school on time with a regular diploma compared to 69.2 percent nationwide in 2006, the latest national figures available. The state's figure for 2006, though, was 71 percent.

Florida education officials have insisted their numbers are more accurate because they track every student instead of relying on estimates used in most national rankings.

Another factor that once contributed to the difference: Florida counted GED graduates while the national rankings did not.

The State Board of Education in September approved a new high school grading formula that for the first time includes graduation rates instead of relying entirely on results from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

As part of that change the board adopted a graduation rate formula recommended by the National Governors Association that includes standard and special diplomas but not GEDs.

Bud Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles and president of The Lawton Chiles Foundation that aids children, also cited Florida's low national rankings.

“Florida's students will never get the resources they need as long as our leaders continue to hide our poor performance in education,'' Chiles said.

The new figures, though, drew praise from Patricia Levesque, executive director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future that promotes his education policies.

“Since introducing high standards, accountability and school choice, Florida has experienced unprecedented rising student achievement,'' Levesque said. “The results are indisputable, and stand in stark contrast to the eight years before the A-Plus Plan for Education was launched, a period marked by a 7 percent decline in our graduation rate.''

Chiles, a Democrat, was governor for most of the eight years before Bush, a Republican, launched his program.

Florida's dropout rate also continued its decline this year to a record low of 2.3 percent. That's down 0.3 percentage point compared to last year and 0.7 percentage point since 2004-05.

Hispanic and black students decreased their dropout rates by 0.6 and 0.2 percentage points. Non-Hispanic white students decreased their dropout rate by 0.3 percentage point.


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