Dropout study paints worse picture than state; Criticized report shows just over half of DISD students graduate

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 36A

Barely half of all high school students in Dallas and Fort Worth schools graduate, according to a new study by a conservative think tank. That includes less than 40 percent of Latino students.

Those numbers are sharply different from the numbers reported by the Texas Education Agency, which says 75 percent of Dallas students graduate within four years, including 67 percent of Latinos. But Dallas officials acknowledge that state data may underestimate the size of the problem.

“[Superintendent Mike] Moses has said the dropout problem is probably a lot bigger than what any of the other figures report,” said Donald Claxton, Dallas district spokesman. “We know it’s a major problem, and we’re trying to do something about it.”

The study, from the Manhattan Institute, is an attempt to compare the dropout records of all 50 states and the country’s 50 largest school districts. Texas was 39th, and most of its biggest districts placed near the bottom in the study.

Calculating the size of a state’s or district’s dropout problem is a notoriously slippery task. There are more than a dozen different accepted ways to crunch dropout data, which can produce wildly varying results. And dropouts, by their nature, have removed themselves from the mainstream of American education, making tracking their whereabouts difficult.

The Manhattan Institute calculated graduation rates, a method attractive in its simplicity. The study examined the class of 1998 at two points – when the group was in eighth grade and when they should have graduated. If the two groups are the same size, the graduation rate would be 100 percent.

According to that method, the national graduation rate is 74 percent. Texas graduates 68 percent of its students: 59 percent of blacks, 56 percent of Latinos, and 76 percent of whites. Dallas was found to have a 52 percent graduation rate, and Fort Worth 53 percent.

It’s not unexpected for Texas to fall below the national average. Texas students are more likely to be poor, non-English-speaking, or Hispanic, all characteristics that have been linked to higher dropout rates.

The study found that Dallas graduated only 39 percent of its Latino students, compared with 60 percent of black students and 72 percent of white students.

But critics have long raised concerns about methods such as the one used in the study.

The study does not track individual students to see if they dropped out or simply transferred to a private school, for example. And high failure rates in a particular grade can skew the numbers. The study also did not count students who receive GEDs as graduates. State calculations do.

“There are differences in definitions,” said DeEtta Culbertson, TEA spokeswoman. “No single dropout rate provided by one group can provide all the information we need. But whether they say 8 percent or 50 percent, they all agree there are still too many students in Texas who do not complete high school.”

The Manhattan Institute’s numbers are only the latest attempt to get a handle on the size of Texas’ dropout problem. There are nearly as many estimates as there are groups willing to calculate them.

A slightly different attrition rate calculation is used by a San Antonio group, the Intercultural Development Research Association, which releases state and county dropout rates for Texas each year. Its latest figures, released last month, reported a 40 percent dropout rate in Texas.

A study conducted for The Dallas Morning News in May by the nonprofit group Just for the Kids found that about 20 percent of Texas students did not graduate within five years of entering high school.