State’s dropout rate continues to fall, but data controversial; Critics say accounting system is flawed, problem much worse

Friday, August 17, 2001
Page 25A

State’s dropout rate continues to fall, but data controversial
Critics say accounting system is flawed, problem much worse

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

The Texas Education Agency reported Thursday that the state’s annual dropout rate had declined from 1.6 percent to 1.3 percent in the last year, continuing a decade-long trend.

But critics of the state’s dropout accounting method said the latest numbers don’t represent reality and grossly underestimate the size of the state’s dropout problem.

The annual rate – the measure used in calculating the accountability ratings for each district and school – has dropped steadily since 1987-88, when the official rate was 6.7 percent.

“Districts are obviously doing a better job keeping students in school,” said Jim Nelson, the state’s education commissioner. “Despite the stepped-up efforts to both keep students in school and bring dropouts back to school, our dropout rate remains too high. We must continue to push for improved academic performance and reduced dropout rates.”

“I’m sure the TEA and the districts are doing the absolute best they can to track dropouts, but this is fantasyland,” said Patricia Duttweiler, assistant director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.

Some sources have estimated higher rates. A study conducted for The Dallas Morning News by the nonprofit educational research group Just for the Kids in May found that 20 percent of students who entered Texas public high schools in 1994 had not graduated by 1999. Other groups put the number even higher.

The TEA has acknowledged some shortcomings in its methods and is moving toward a variety of improvements during the next few years.

For example, Mr. Nelson has said the state will begin using a four-year high school completion rate in its accountability system in a few years.

Dr. Duttweiler took issue with several subsets of TEA’s dropout data.

The state reports an annual dropout rate among Hispanics of only 1.9 percent; she and other researchers say it is much higher than that. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 28.6 percent of Hispanics between ages 16 and 24 not enrolled in school lack a high school diploma.

For the second consecutive year, Dallas schools had a lower dropout rate than the state as a whole – something that runs counter to what researchers would expect an accurate rate to find. Dallas students are 92 percent minority and 73 percent economically disadvantaged, and 33 percent have limited English skills – all factors that tend to increase dropout rates, not reduce them.

Last year, Dallas schools enrolled 14,421 ninth-graders but only 5,941 12th-graders. Much of that gap is caused by students dropping out over the course of high school. But the Dallas Independent School District’s new annual dropout rate is just 1.2 percent.

“There’s no way a district with those disadvantages and those horrendous barriers would have a rate that low,” Dr. Duttweiler said.

DISD Superintendent Mike Moses, a former state education commissioner, said DISD had a more accurate handle on the size of the problem.

“Our [four-year] dropout rate is closer to 31 or 32 percent,” he said. “Our dropout rate is just too high.”

This year, as part of an effort to hold districts to a higher standard, the TEA toughened the dropout-rate requirements for acceptable, recognized and exemplary ratings. For example, a high school needed a 6 percent or lower annual dropout rate last year to be rated acceptable; this year, it needed a 5.5 percent rate.