Ratings of 10 FW high schools rescinded over dropout tracking; State says too many students unaccounted for in district

By Laurie Fox
Staff Writer

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FORT WORTH – Fort Worth school Superintendent Thomas Tocco says he’ll seek an outside consultant and meet with principals after 10 schools were sanctioned for losing track of students who had left.

The Texas Education Agency has told the district that it will rescind the “acceptable” school ratings of 10 of its 14 high schools after an audit of the district’s reporting procedures. The schools will now be rated “not-rated [data quality].”

Texas school districts are asked to account for all students who leave from one year to the next by indicating a reason for the departure, whether they dropped out, received a GED or transferred to another district.

In its 2001 report to the TEA, which included students who left the district in the 1999-2000 school year, the Fort Worth district initially reported that it could not account for 1,600 students. Before the TEA audit last fall, that list had been whittled to 600.

The TEA audits districts when the number of unaccounted-for students exceeds 1,000, or 10 percent of the total enrollment for grades 7-12.

Investigators who combed through the list of 1,600 found erratic recordkeeping – there were no records for some students – and that some of the 600 on the district’s most recent list had dropped out, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a TEA spokesperson.

Overall, she said, the district is not tracking potential dropouts closely enough.

Dr. Tocco agreed Wednesday, saying that whether there were 600 or 1,600 students unaccounted for, it was “a substantial number and entirely too large a percentage.”

He said he’d seek outside help to improve the situation.

“This represents an apparent inability to track students from one year to the next,” he said. “We need to clean up our act and provide better and more correct data. There is so much at stake. The achievement levels and the hard work of our staff could be tarnished by this.”

According to a study conducted last year for The Dallas Morning News, 32 percent of students who should have graduated from Fort Worth high schools in 1999 dropped out. Last year, Fort Worth enrolled 7,121 freshmen but only 3,790 seniors.

The TEA sanction fell on Carter Riverside, Arlington Heights, Eastern Hills, North Side, Paschal, Polytechnic, O.D. Wyatt, Dunbar, Western Hills and Success high schools. The nonrating will apply at least until TEA releases its new school ratings this summer.

Dropout information is one of several measures the TEA uses to evaluate school performance in its annual school accountability ratings. The rescinded ratings carry no real penalty beyond “a black eye for the district,” Ms. Graves Ratcliffe said.

She said Fort Worth was among 20 school districts and 24 charter schools that had high numbers of students who were unaccounted for. She declined to name the districts, but she said “Fort Worth is far and away the largest district with the most leavers.”

In the last few years, the TEA has strengthened the requirements on districts to account for former students.

Texas’ system is better than many. Some states don’t require schools to track students who leave.

Once students remove themselves from the school system, it can be difficult to find out what happened to them, experts say.

“Texas is getting better at it, but kids can still fall through the cracks,” said Chrys Dougherty, director of research at Just for the Kids, an Austin-based nonprofit educational research group that conducted The News’ study last year.

Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University, said he considered the number of students missed by Fort Worth ISD “alarmingly large.”

Dr. Smink said the large number of missing students could point to a problem with identifying potential dropouts sooner – a big key to keeping kids in school.

“If you catch them when they’ve just missed a few days of school, you can usually track them down much more easily than if you wait until they’ve been gone for a while,” he said.

Staff writer Joshua Benton contributed to this report.