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Low graduation rate draws Florida lawsuit

The case against the Palm Beach County district aims to clarify its duty to keep more kids in school.

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Superintendent Johnson defends the performance of the 170,000-student district. Under Florida's testing system, he says, Palm Beach is the only A-rated urban district. And a higher percentage of total students graduated in 2007 than in 2006.

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Many students drop out of school not because they are failing courses, but because "they just don't see school as being part of their life," Johnson says. "They want to go get a job." Setting up career-academy options to help students prepare for fields as diverse as construction and biotechnology has proved "more motivational in terms of keeping students in school to graduate," he says.

Johnson also disputes the usefulness of the alternative methods of calculation that the plaintiffs put forward.

One of those cited in the lawsuit, the Cumulative Promotion Index, was developed by Christopher Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center in Bethesda, Md. It allows for comparisons of districts across the country by looking at federally reported data. It shows the probability that a ninth-grader in a given district will graduate within four years with a regular diploma. "The official state-reported rates that parents, teachers, and members of the public will be most familiar with are often not very accurate," Mr. Swanson says, in that they overstate success.

Florida's calculation allows for counting those who earn alternative graduation credentials. A number of advocacy groups, including the ACLU in this lawsuit, say graduation rates should count regular diplomas earned within four years, because those who take GED (General Educational Development) tests or other alternative routes tend to be at a long-term disadvantage.

How to calculate graduation rates has long been the subject of debate. Efforts are under way among governors, Congress, and the Department of Education to create a more uniform system for accurate tracking and comparison. To some degree, that's a missing link in the current accountability system, since federal law puts more emphasis on test scores.

"This case might now get some courts involved in recognizing that graduation rates are an important determinant of the quality of education," says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, which tracks state graduation issues.

The ACLU points to a number of school districts with demographics similar to Palm Beach's that have higher graduation rates and smaller gaps. "The ACLU has never said parents have zero role, but the school districts have a tremendous role in ensuring that as many as possible are graduating," Ms. Gupta says.

Houston argues that's not a fair standard. "There will always be some districts that I call heroic exceptions, that for some set of reasons have been able to beat the odds," he says.

The Palm Beach County district is due to file its response in court by April 29.