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December 13, 2005

Jennifer Fennell
(850) 245-0413

Education Commissioner Asks High School Reform Task Force to Consider Elimination of High School Retention

TALLAHASSEE — Education Commissioner John L. Winn yesterday asked members of the High School Reform Task Force to consider recommending to the Florida Legislature the elimination of high school retention. During yesterday's High School Reform Task Force meeting, Commissioner Winn expressed concern over the number of high school students retained, particularly ninth graders, and called for policy changes that would redefine high school grade-level classifications. Of the nearly 93,000 high school students retained last year, more than a third were in the ninth grade.

"There are a disproportionate number of ninth graders retained in Florida and we need to ask ourselves why they are being retained in such large numbers," said Commissioner Winn. "Is it to give them more time to prepare for the FCAT or to send a strong message about student performance early on in their high school careers? The question we ought to be asking ourselves is whether these reasons are good enough to outweigh the negative effects of such policies."

In Florida, 36 school districts retain ninth-grade students who earn less than six credits, regardless of grade point average; seven retain ninth-grade students with less than a 2.0 grade point average; and 33 retain ninth-grade students with less than five credits. Last year, Florida school districts retained more than 38,000 ninth graders — nearly 17 percent. No other grade level, including third grade, retained more students.

Third-grade retention is centered on students' ability to read proficiently and is a necessary intervention step to ensure students will be able to meet the more rigorous standards of subsequent grades. Currently, ninth-grade retention policies are inconsistent from district to district and lack the intervention typically associated with retention. Ninth graders who do not earn the credits necessary for promotion to tenth grade are classified as ninth graders for a second year. However, they do not repeat the ninth grade in its entirety, but retake the courses they failed or take different courses that will count toward graduation. The remainder of their coursework proceeds on the tenth grade level in classrooms of their tenth grade peers.

"We are basically sending a message to these students that they have failed before they even had a chance to get started and there is little to no hope of them graduating on time," added Commissioner Winn. "That's the wrong message at exactly the wrong time — when students are reaching the legal age to drop out of school. We need to encourage our students, especially our struggling students, and provide them the support they need to persevere and not leave."

Winn also urged task force members to consider the proposed elimination of high school retention as a means to reduce the number of high school students who choose to participate in General Educational Development (GED) programs to earn an equivalent diploma rather than pursue a standard diploma. Florida calculates into its graduation rate those students who earn an equivalent diploma within four years of beginning high school. Last year, 6,237 of the 131,507 high school graduates earned an equivalent diploma through a GED program.

"We want students to earn a high school credential, but, perhaps, are too quick to offer them an alternative path in a GED program," said Commissioner Winn. "This option surely saves many kids from receiving no education at all, but it may provide an all too easy way around the tougher road to a standard diploma. Every high school student should aspire to earn their standard diploma."

According to data reported by the Florida Department of Education, there is a positive correlation between districts' graduation rates, their corresponding GED rates and ninth-grade retention rates. On average, districts with high graduation rates have low GED and ninth-grade retention rates, while districts with low graduation rates generally have high GED and ninth-grade retention rates.