Clarity on African American graduation rates

Dear Editor,

I am writing this letter in response to the recently published article by Ricardo Davis, President, COQEBS, regarding the graduation rates for African-American students in Pinellas County.  As I oversee district assessment and related student data measures, I would like provide some clarity on this topic and want to begin by pointing out that the State of Florida outlines the rules and requirements for graduation rate calculations (not the district).

It was noted in the article that there are different diplomas types granted to students but it is important to note that all diplomas that are counted in the graduation rate are the same “standard” Florida diploma and they all meet the State requirements for graduation, even if the diploma is granted using an equivalent method for showing mastery. Such state adopted equivalent methods have always been in place in Florida and are not viewed in any way as “less than” any other method. Students are able to take the ACT or SAT as an alternative measure if they do not pass the state FCAT assessment as some students perform better on some tests than others. All diplomas granted via these alternatives measures are considered standard diplomas as all require students to show reading mastery to graduate.

In this same way, students with disabilities have always been granted certain allowances to better judge their learning, including extended time, small testing environments and waivers. I certainly understand the concerns related to standard diploma rates that are achieved via equivalent assessments (such as the ACT or SAT) or ESE waivers but I do not think that either of these concerns merit the criticism outlined in the letter.

It is unmistakable that both the district’s overall graduation rate and black graduation rate have continued to climb significantly in recent years.

  • Graduation Rate (all)                                                     Graduation Rate (black)

    • 2012-13: 71.9%                                                                  2012-13: 56.4%

    • 2013-14: 76.2%                                                                  2013-14: 60.7%

    • 2014-15: 78.3%                                                                  2014-15: 64.6%

Additionally, the percentage of black student graduates passing the 10th grade FCAT reading test in Pinellas County has increased each year as well.

  • 2012-13: 26.10%

  • 2013-14: 38.95%

  • 2014-15: 40.49%

All the while, the percentage of black students graduating via an alternative assessment has remained relatively constant:

  • 2012-13: 10.99%

  • 2013-14: 11.10%

  • 2014-15: 10.61%

It is important to note that state education officials and high school principals consider a concordant score on the ACT or SAT as defined by the State of Florida to be an equivalent score to that of the state assessment (such as the FCAT). In fact, it could be argued that the ACT or SAT concordant score is more difficult to achieve than a passing FCAT score.

In addition, the ACT and SAT are considered such viable alternatives to measuring student ability that they have gained traction as possible permanent alternatives to the FSA. Senator Don Gaetz, the former state Senate President, is actively working on legislation to allow flexibility for the ACT or SAT to replace the FSA altogether.

The State of Florida has always required a test of reading ability to graduate high school and has historically provided two ways to meet the reading standard, either through the state assessment (which had previously been called the FCAT but is now called the FSA) or an equivalent score on a national college-entrance test (either the ACT or SAT).

As some have questioned the merits of students at Gibbs High School who have graduated via these alternative assessments, I have consulted with Mrs. Rita Vasquez, Executive Director of High School Education, and Mr. Reuben Hepburn, Principal of Gibbs High School, regarding the current efforts at Gibbs to build on the successes to date. In summary, this is what I found.

  • Mrs. Vasquez, after repeated visits to classrooms across the Gibbs campus, reports that Gibbs “must at once and for all time be recognized, respected and valued as an institution of learning.”

  • She reports that the learning environment at Gibbs is a model for positive and effective teacher and student interactions built around the shared goal of 100% of the students graduating and kids achieving their life aspirations.

  • Both she and Mr. Hepburn report that the environment at Gibbs High is a college and career ready culture with students easily explaining what they wish to do with their lives beyond high school and clearly articulating how Gibbs and its teachers are helping students to accomplish those goals.

  • There is no distinction, as there should not be, at Gibbs High School between kids whose paths entail passing one set of assessments versus another set of assessments as both paths are equally valuable and equally prepare students for their post-secondary paths.  There is not a teacher or student at Gibbs High who would argue otherwise.

Mr. Hepburn relayed the following comments from students at Gibbs when asked to write about their school and the use of equivalent assessments:

  • “I think it is not fair to students who worked extremely hard to meet the graduation requirement.  If I should speak for myself I am honestly not a good test taker but when I set a goal that I want to accomplish I work hard to reach that goal.  After I graduate high school, I plan on going to St. Pete. College or the University of South Florida in Tampa to major in business which will help me pursue my childhood dream of becoming an entrepreneur.  Every individual has the right to say what they feel but sometimes your thoughts affect our future.  I look forward to walking on that stage on June 3rd to receive my high school diploma that I worked extremely hard for so I could be proud of my accomplishments throughout high school.”

  • “Having anyone in the community say that the diploma earned on an ACT score is not good enough is really sad.   It’s really sad to hear that is how anyone sees that.  Given that those students who have received a concordant score of a 19 or higher, saying that is not good enough even though we have worked extremely hard to receive that score.  With the FCAT, it’s hard to get the qualifying score, even though you missed it by one point or two.  So with the ACT, with just receiving a 19, and being able to graduate with that and satisfying the FCAT is huge.  For the community to say that is not good enough…it is good enough to me because they both have the most rigorous materials that we have to complete. I believe the ACT Concordant score of a 19 or higher is good to satisfy the FCAT.” (This comment is from a student who scored a 25 on the ACT reading test and has been accepted to FAMU on a scholarship.)

  • “It’s not right to make a claim like that.  We earned that ACT score.  Plus, the ACT test is much harder than the FCAT.  The ACT is mentally challenging.  For anyone to claim that my High School diploma does not carry the same weight simply because I earned the ACT, means they want to see us fail.”

  • “I am a graduate of Gibbs High School Class of 2014 and I was one of many students who received their diploma by meeting the requirement for the ACT Concordant score instead of passing the FCAT. I feel I was well prepared for college as I am currently finishing up my sophomore year at Tallahassee Community College and I will be receiving my Associates Degree at the end of this semester and I currently hold a 3.3 GPA.  Although I wasn’t able to pass the FCAT, I believe the ACT was just as good of preparation for me to move on and further my education.”

Of course, I agree that there is good work happening at Gibbs High School and throughout the district. In turn, Pinellas County Schools will remain focused on improving graduation rates for all of our students. We look forward to the continued cooperation, collaboration and support from our community partners in helping us in achieving this noble goal.

Dr. Daniel J. Evans, Ed. D., Executive Director

Assessment, Accountability and Research

Pinellas County School District

One Reply to “Clarity on African American graduation rates”

  1. S. Rose Hayes says:

    I appreciate Dr. Evans response, however it brings up another question. Why do more African American students pass the ACT and SAT than thd FCAT? Is it a cultural problem ,having to do with the design of the tests?

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