Khadaroo, The Christian Science Monitor, March 26, 2008
Amid mounting national frustration over high school graduation
rates, the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida has
been thrust onto center stage.
In a class-action lawsuit, the American Civil Liberties Union is
demanding that the district boost its graduation rates and
reduce the gaps in those rates between racial and socioeconomic
groups. The lawsuit is the first in the United States to make
such demands of a school district, the ACLU and other sources
Lawyers from the national ACLU and its Florida chapter filed the
suit in state court on March 18.
the ACLU is asking the court to require the district to improve
its graduation rates by a certain percentage each year – overall
and for subgroups. It also wants the court to determine a more
accurate way of calculating graduation rates – a complex issue
For educators and education experts, the case raises some
controversial questions: What is an acceptable rate of
graduation? And who should be held responsible when schools miss
the mark – schools, students, society?
"If the ACLU is successful, this is going to shake everything
up, because it will be a whole different set of expectations
about who is supposed to solve the problems," says Paul Houston,
executive director of the American Association of School
Administrators in Arlington, Va.
Under the state-required reporting system, the graduation rate
in the Palm Beach County District last year was 71.4 percent.
The suit claims that other methods of calculation would yield an
even lower rate. But either way, it argues, the success level is
inadequate. It also notes that in Palm Beach County, the
state-reported rate for whites was 29 percentage points higher
than that of African-Americans and 20 points higher than that of
Some observers say they'd be surprised to see the case go far
unless the state is also brought in as a defendant, because the
state determines so much education policy and funding. To
others, the suit skirts over the role of individuals, families,
and society in ensuring that students qualify for a diploma.
The plaintiffs argue there's more the district can be doing.
"The graduation rates in Palm Beach County are shamefully low,"
says Vanita Gupta, an ACLU staff attorney in New York. The
district needs to "live up to its constitutional obligations [in
Florida] to provide a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and
"We all want to see graduation rates rise," counters the
district's superintendent, Arthur Johnson. The suit is
"misguided" and designed to get attention, he says. "We do have
a gap [in graduation rates].... But so does the state, so does
the nation.... Suing Palm Beach County is not going to solve
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
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
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.
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