Thousands of Florida students are in jeopardy of not graduating. Districts plead with state.

by Ana Goñi-Lessan, Tallahassee Democrat. This article was published April 22, 2023 by Florida Today

Florida school districts are pleading with the state to delay an increase in graduation requirements, a move that would fail thousands of students who have suffered from learning loss due to the pandemic.

Superintendents have sent letters to the Florida Legislature, asking them to postpone the increase in required SAT and ACT scores, which can be used to meet graduation requirements if the student didn’t pass their 10th grade state assessments.

Districts have implemented last-minute Hail Mary attempts to hurriedly pass struggling seniors who didn’t get the same learning opportunities as previous or future graduating classes, but it might not be enough.

“At a time when Florida’s graduation rates and policies are being highlighted across the nation, we know this is going to mean unprecedented drops in graduation rates in our community and across our state,” wrote Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna in a letter to the Florida Legislature on April 13. 

In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration boasted a slight uptick, 0.4 percentage points, in Florida’s graduation rates when compared to the 2018-2019 pre-pandemic year.

“This is a reflection of Florida’s top-notch educators and the Governor’s unrelenting steadfast leadership,” said Grazie Christie, a member of the State Board of Education.

But that minimal increase in graduation rates could end up becoming negligible as school districts across the state, specifically in Leon, Duval, Pasco, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Lake counties, stated they have an increase in students who are at risk of not graduating because of new testing requirements.

“We believe in accountability and stretch goals, and we have no issue with a gradual increase in the concordant scores, but someone has to stand up for these students before it’s too late,” said Lake County Schools Superintendent Diane S. Kornegay in a letter to Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake.

In Lake County, more than 300 seniors will not walk across the graduation stage with their peers if the test score increase isn’t delayed. In Duval County, more than 390 out of 7,532 seniors will not graduate. And in Leon County, about 400 students out of the district’s 2,100 seniors are at risk.

“While we currently face many educational challenges, I cannot think of one with more potential for harm or disruption than applying new concordant scores to the Class of 2023,” Kornegay wrote. “So please, do all you can to ensure these students do not suffer more than they already have.”

Their appeals may have been heard. On Friday, a day after this story originally published online and went viral, Rep. Ralph E. Massullo, R-Lecanto, filed an amendment to HB 1357 that would allow this year’s seniors who have not yet achieved a passing “concordant” score the ability to qualify for a diploma with last year’s ACT and SAT requirements.

‘Less time to prepare’

The move to change the comparative test requirements was approved by the State Board of Education even before the graduating class of 2023 began high school.

Those changes, which include an increase in ACT and SAT scores and the removal of the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test as an option, were supposed to start with last year’s graduating class, but the Board decided to delay those changes and move the effective date to this year.

This year’s seniors were in ninth grade when COVID-19 shuttered schools in the spring of 2020 and sent kids home to learn virtually. While in-person class resumed that fall, many families opted for online classes. 

Those students did not have the same pre-COVID opportunities to take the required assessments in 10th grade, said Sonya Duke-Bolden, a spokesperson for Duval County Public Schools.

In Florida, there are three components needed to graduate from high school: a 2.0 unweighted cumulative grade point average, course credit requirements and passing scores on the state math and English tests: the grade 10 Florida Standards Assessment for English Language Arts and the Algebra 1 End-of-Course Assessment.

If a student does not pass the state tests, they can earn a “concordant,” or comparative, score on the SAT or the ACT and still earn their diploma.

This year, however, the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score for the SAT increased 50 points, from a 430 to a 480, and the required “concordant” score for the ACT is now an 18 for both reading and English. Students now have to pass two sections. Before, a student only needed a 19 in reading.

Students also used to be able to take the PERT for math in place of the state math assessment. This year, the PERT is no longer an option.

“That two years of learning loss, not only did students have less opportunity for testing, but because of COVID and the interruption of the school day, they had less time to prepare and to receive the prep and support that normally would be in place for those students in ninth and tenth grades,” said Teresa Dennis, a Leon County Schools’ district transition specialist and graduation coach.

For the past year, districts across the state have been rushing to help students earn their diplomas.

“We are doubling down on our efforts,” said Tanya Arja, chief of communications for Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Both Leon and Hillsborough counties are offering ACT and SAT instructional support to students. Duval has Saturday school, afternoon and after-school instruction and one-on-one tutoring, and Lake County has started enrolled students in night school, “but students are still struggling,” Kornegay said.

Delaying the implementation of the test score increase again this year and next year would give them more time to catch up, Dennis said. 

She has students who have an ACT reading subscore of 19, last year’s “concordant” score. But because they don’t have a high enough subscore on the English section, their score on both sections does not average to 18, which is now required.

“It is significantly impacting these students’ morale. They are frustrated, they feel hopeless. They’re starting to give up,” Dennis said.

Title I schools will be most affected by rule change

If a student does not graduate because of a test score, they are issued a certificate of completion that says they completed the coursework.

But it’s still not a diploma. They can’t go on to attend college, enroll in the military or check “yes” on a job application.

Until they earn a passing score on the “corcordant” test or the state assessments, they won’t graduate, Dennis said.

In Lake County, the district’s overall graduation rate will drop 11% from 91% to 80%, Kornegay said.

Both Hillsborough and Pasco school districts said they don’t know yet how many seniors are at risk but are anticipating a drop in graduation rates as well.

“Over the last 10 years, we have seen tremendous progress with our graduation rate due to a lot of hard work,” said Steven Hegarty, spokesperson for Pasco County Schools. “It’s disappointing that a rule change can potentially have such a negative impact.”

Leon County, which before the pandemic had an average graduation rate above 90%, will drop to about 80% with the new graduation requirements.

Most students opt to take the ACT and SAT to fulfill the testing requirements because they’re offered more often throughout the year, including the summer. The state assessments are only offered during the school year, and the ELA retake, only offered for juniors and seniors, is once in the fall and spring.

School-day ACT and SAT exams, which can be paid for with a discounted fee, are only offered once in the fall and once in the spring, as well.

If a student wants to take the ACT and SAT outside of school, it costs approximately $60 for the basic test, a roadblock for students who come from low-income families.

Some students are eligible for a fee waiver, but those are limited.

The most dramatic drop in graduation rates in Leon County are in its Title I schools, which receive federal assistance because at least 40% of students are considered low-income.

Godby High School, which is the only high school in the 32304 ZIP code, dubbed the poorest ZIP code in the state, would see a 20% drop in its graduation rate, from 80.40% to 60.30%. Rickards High School, which had above a 90% graduation rate before the pandemic, will drop from an 82.60% in 2022 to 66.30% in 2023.

The non-Title I and majority white public schools, Chiles, Leon and Lincoln High Schools, would drop no more than 8% in their graduation rates between 2022 and 2023, according to district estimates.

Godby and Rickards are the only two public high schools in the district with a majority Black student population.

“We have to stand up for these students before it’s too late,” Hanna said.