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Jefferson Sees Big Leap In Graduation Rate After Testing Paused In Spring

Graduate in cap and gown pumps fist and looks into the sunset.
Florida has waived testing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Florida Department of Education recently released new graduation rates for school districts and the numbers cracked 90%. Of course—there area few caveats. One, the figures cover the 2019-2020 school year which ended amid the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The state also notes the rates a sizeable number of students who benefitted because statewide exams were waived. Still all those caveats don’t fully explain the big gains made in the rural school district of Jefferson County, which boasted its highest graduation rate in decades.

The Jefferson County school district consists of one school, grades K-12 under one roof. But the district has long struggled with its public education system, to the point where, about four years ago, the state effectively ordered it to hand over operations to a private company. Since then, Jefferson-Somerset Academy has slowly seen its students make progress. During the 2019-2020 school year and despite the pandemic, Jefferson took a big leap forward. It’s graduation rate surged more than 20 points—to a high of 82.4%. That means of the students who started as freshman four years ago, more than 82% of them graduated on time. Jefferson Somerset Principal Cory Oliver says the most recent figure reflects several years of work.

“This is a more clear picture of all of the plans we put in place and followed through with. And our data [is] reflective of what should have been happening within the district. So I think that’s the biggest reason behind all of that.”

These recent graduates would have been sophomores when the district was effectively privatized in the Fall of 2017. That move was made after the district struggled for years with poor performance, crumbling facilities, and an exodus of students. Oliver says the figure also represents something else: years of bad data the school has finally managed to reconcile.

“That posed quite a bit of a problem," said Oliver. "Then, you had kids enrolled in 9th grade who were already 18,19 years old…you had all these overage kids who weren’t passing the grade level. And it took three years to really start cleaning that up and that’s why you see such a big jump.”

This year, nearly every school district in the state saw its graduation rate increase, though none by as much as Jefferson. In a memo to superintendents, public schools Chancellor Jacob Oliva noted the new figures reflect about 7% of students who were in danger of not graduating, but did so anyway because Florida waived standardized testing rules.

"It is possible that even with the opportunities to test or earn concordant scores last Spring, some of these students may not have ended up meeting the assessment graduation requirements. Therefore, one cannot definitely conclude that all of these students would have graduated if not provided the exemption. This uncertainty highlights the challenges in interpreting these results," Oliva said.

Gadsden County made the second-largest leap with its graduation rate surging by more than 17 percentage points to more than 77%. Statewide, 90% of students graduated on time, an increase of more than three percentage points from last year.

But will the gains hold? Some districts are struggling to get kids caught up after the pandemic forced schools to close in the spring and students were sent home. Many schools tried online learning to mixed results. Others resulted to sending paper-and-pencil classwork assignments home. The uneven access to education technology in the Spring, coupled with ongoing distance learning efforts in the fall, is leading some teachers and administrators to worry some students are falling further behind, Schools are prepping for standardized tests to resume as usual, but there's little optimism that the results will look good.

"We are a 'B' school," said Sabal Palm Elementary Assistant Principal Shannon Davis, "and that was hard to get to. Some people will understand [if grades fall]. Others won't. People could see a [bad] grade and think the worst."