Down 3.3 points from year prior

Marion County lost 5 percentage points on the state average in terms of its high school graduation rate, the second largest slide of the state’s 30 largest school districts, according to data released by the state Department of Education.

While the graduation rate statewide rose by 1.7 percentage points to 82.3 percent, Marion County’s rate fell by 3.3 percentage points to 78.5 percent. That means the district lost ground to the state by 5 points.

The only large county (those with 20,000 or more students) in the state to lose more ground on the state average was Leon, which lost ground by 5.4 percentage points.

The graduation rate is the number of students who graduate high school on time in four years. The data does not mean 21.5 percent of Marion County high school students did not graduate. It means that 21.5 percent of Marion’s students did not graduate in four years.

Marion’s dropout rate for 2015-16 was 3.4 percent, compared with the state’s 3.8 percent average. The 2016-17 dropout rates have not been released by the state.

The good news is that 87.4 percent of Marion’s students in the seven mainstream high schools did graduate on time in four years. Here is how the individual high schools fared:

• West Port, 93.9 percent

• North Marion, 89.7

• Forest, 88.6

• Vanguard, 84.3

• Lake Weir, 84,1

• Dunnellon, 83

• Belleview, 82.6.

Francis Marion Military Academy, the district’s only charter high school, had a graduation rate of 66.7 percent.

The data included 284 students in alternative programs and at Hillcrest School, a facility for the county’s most severely mentally challenged students. None of these students graduated with a diploma that meets federal graduation rate guidelines. Only Florida’s standard diplomas count toward the graduation rates, according to the federal guidelines in determining graduation rates. The rate excludes students who earn special diplomas and General Education Development (GED) diplomas.

Of the 284 students listed as non-graduates, 206 were from the now defunct Catapult Academy, 28 were from Silver River Mentoring Institute, 27 from New Leaf Academy and 23 from Hillcrest.

The graduation rate is determined by totaling the number of ninth-graders enrolled at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, minus the number of students who transferred out of state, transferred out of district, transferred to private schools, or who are now deceased.

Once the adjusted number of students is calculated, it is divided into the number of students who received a diploma that meets federal guidelines. Marion County had 3,101 ninth-graders in 2013-14 and 2,419 graduates in 2016-17, for a 78.5 percent graduation rate.

The decline comes 18 months after School Board member Nancy Stacy informed the state that she believed former Superintendent of Schools George Tomyn’s administration was inflating graduation rates by placing students who stopped attending high school into a homeschool category.

Stacy told the state she had evidence that Marion, as well as many other districts, were pushing non-attending students into an online high school so that it would not affect the district’s graduation and dropout rates. Marion County was using Smart Horizons, billed as an online high school.

When Tomyn’s staff could not find documentation showing that each of the student’s parents agreed to those transfers, Tomyn addressed the board. Tomyn told the board that there was not one place to collect those transfer forms and that he could not find all of them to show the parents did enroll students in the programs.

Tomyn told the board that the district would enact a new policy to better track the student forms. Tomyn said the district would carefully inspect all the records of the students placed in home education during the 2015-16 school year. If the forms could not be located, then the students would be counted as dropouts. 2016-17 was the first full year of more accurate reporting.

Stacy asked the state’s Inspector General for a state investigation in 2016. A state investigation found that Tomyn and his staff did not intentionally inflate the graduation rates. That ruling came out a few months after Tomyn was defeated by current Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier.

“I went to the Inspector General because I felt that the district had been cheating for years to boost the graduation rate,” Stacy said on Friday. “I applaud Dr. Maier’s administration for putting an end to the cheating.”

In March, state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart called for an investigation into whether some school districts were using online charter and private schools to push students into to inflate graduation rates.

The state looked at counties utilizing the trend, such as Leon and Gadsden school districts, which use a company called EdMentum or EdOptions. Besides Marion, other districts, like Hamilton, Dixie and Levy, use Smart Horizons, while others have used Giant Campus.

District officials said the drop in this year’s graduation rate was predominately due to how the state says they now can handle students enrolled in Smart Horizons or the other charter and public high schools.

Kevin Christian, school district spokesman, said 85 students who were once in Marion County schools transferred at some point in the last four years to Smart Horizons. Though typically the district can remove those students from the cohort, the district had to include those students in the overall total for 2016-17.

If those students were removed from the total of potential graduates, officials say, the district would have lost only 0.5 percentage points when compared to Marion County’s 2015-16 graduation rate of 81.8 percent.

Stacy says that was the idea in pushing students into online high schools: Get them off the totals so that they did not count as high school dropouts and that would help increase the district’s graduation rate. And now that districts have to count students enrolled in these online high schools as part of the overall total in 2016-17, districts using the concept watched its graduation rates drastically decline.

Consider:

• Leon County lost 6 percentage points to the state average and Gadsden County lost 26.1 percent on the state average when those entities had to include students using EdOptions in its overall numbers.

• While Marion lost 5 percentage points when it had to include its Smart Horizons students in its cohort, Hamilton County lost 17.7 percentage points on the state average, while Dixie County lost ground by 8.3 percentage points and Levy County lost 3.4 percentage points when they had to include their students attending Smart Horizons.

“Marion County’s rate did not decline at all,” Stacy said. “This is what it really has been all along. We need to have the accurate rate to know how we are truly doing.”

Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com. Follow hime on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.