Graduation Day Doesn’t End With Diploma for All Polk County Students

In May, nearly 8,000 Polk County high school seniors walked across the stage in robes and caps, shook the principal’s hand and received a folder with a piece of paper.

Of those graduates, 7,468 earned a high school diploma, according to data provided by Polk County Public Schools.

The remaining 523 received a high school diploma, which proves they completed four years of high school but likely failed the state exam.

That number is down significantly from last year’s 735 certificates of completion. But the distinction could limit options for young people leaving high school.

  • Overall, 6.5 percent of Polk County students earned diplomas, compared to 2.9 percent statewide.
  • Tenoroc High School boasted the highest graduation rate among traditional high schools in Polk County, with one in eight graduating seniors (12.6%) failing to meet graduation requirements.

What is a course completion certificate? PCPS Chief of Staff Jason Pitts said the students receiving certificates of completion are general education students who have not met expectations by graduation day.

The most common scenario is failure to meet minimum scores on standardized tests in reading or math. The tests required for graduation are administered in 10th grade, but may be repeated multiple times in 11th and 12th grades until students pass.

It is also possible that the student failed a required course, obtained a grade point average lower than 2.0, or did not meet another state requirement for obtaining a diploma.

“A lot of students are working and don’t want to finish,” Pitts said. “For some reason, they didn’t meet the graduation requirement, and we’re letting them walk across the stage and get something.”

District officials noted that the graduation count is not final. Some seniors are attending summer sessions. They have until the day before the new school year begins Aug. 12 to meet requirements and still be considered for the 2023-24 graduation class.

What limitations do certificates create? Most public colleges and universities require a high school diploma for admission. Those with only a certificate are not eligible for financial aid and may be disqualified from entry-level positions that require a high school diploma.

Before 2022, all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces required a high school diploma or equivalent to enlist in the military. The U.S. Army has dropped the diploma requirement, but recruits must score at least 50 on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, known as the ASVAB.

Tenoroc High School: Lakeland’s smallest traditional public high school had the most graduation certificates. At Tenoroc High, 201 seniors earned a standard diploma and 29 received a certificate of completion.

PCPS Superintendent Fred Heid has made changes to the school over the past few years. The district has added the Cambridge AICE program to Tenoroc, an accelerated academic degree program offered by Cambridge University. It has also added 3DE, a business problem-solving project in partnership with Junior Achievement of Tampa Bay and Lakeland Leads. Former principal Jason Looney has been transferred to Southwest Middle School.

Real-world effects: Just before graduating in 2009, when Connie Wilson was a senior at Mulberry High School, she was acing every subject, including Advanced Placement English.

But she struggled on what was then called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a state test of reading, writing, math, science and social studies. She failed the reading section by three points and was therefore ineligible to receive a regular high school diploma. Instead, she was supposed to receive a certificate of completion.

“My dad was so mad at the school that we made a decision; I dropped out three days before finals and went two weeks later and got my GED,” Wilson said. “I hate the idea of ​​a GED. It’s unfair to students who work hard to base the rest of their lives on standardized test scores. I failed the FCAT reading exam by three points, but I passed AP English with an A. Make sense of that.”

Wilson, now 33, works in Publix’s corporate office in Lakeland and does well.

Tay Crum, 32, also failed the FCAT reading exam but still graduated from Winter Haven High School in 2007.

“Now I have a job, I was in the military, I even went to school to get my blood drawn, but I had trouble understanding,” Crum explained.

She currently works as a cashier for a local nonprofit. She said she was never diagnosed with a learning disorder, but she did attend a special needs reading class in high school.

“Honestly, what I hate most is that I didn’t get a diploma — I went to school for nothing, basically,” Crum said. “You work hard all those years and you still can’t get a high school diploma based on one test. I even went into the military, but I don’t want to continue my education because I didn’t even get a diploma.”

Results in Florida: The state website provides the following statistics for the 2022-2023 school year:

  • Standard diplomas 183,416 – 88.0%
  • GED-Based Diplomas: 295 — 0.1%
  • Certificates of Completion: 5,818 – 2.8%
  • Still enrolled: 8,552 — 4.1%
  • Adult education: 4,513 – 2.2%
  • Withdrawal from studying in a private school covered by the contract: 131 – 0.1%
  • Dropped out – 5765 – 2.8%
Over the past 20 years, graduation rates in Florida have increased. | Source: Florida Department of Education

Suspension of pandemic testing: In spring 2020, schools across the state closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and moved learning online. This year, Florida eliminated the requirement for graduates to pass a statewide assessment test.

The state’s high school graduation rate rose from 86.9% to 90% in 2020, while Polk’s rose from 81.2% to 86.5%. But it fell over the next three years when testing requirements returned.

How Polk County compares: Polk County’s high school graduation rate lags behind most other regions of the state, but has improved in recent years.

Last year, Florida’s high school graduation rate was 88 percent. Polk County’s was nearly 10 percent lower, at 78.3 percent. Polk County’s dropout rate has consistently been about twice as high as the rest of the state. But there is one bright spot in the data.

Florida Department of Education statistics show the dropout rate in Polk County is declining.

Polk County’s dropout rate dropped from 7.3% in the 2018-19 school year to 4.7% in the 2022-2023 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

Heid attributed the improvement in part to a greater focus on attendance. In 2022, he created a team of “community facilitators” — formerly known as truancy officers.

“If students are not present, they cannot learn. That’s it,” Heid said at the time.

Editor’s Note: We excluded alternative schools and those with fewer than 50 students from our analysis. Click here to see the full list.

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