By Joshua Benton
Federal officials have estimated the size of Texas’ dropout problem for the first time and say it’s almost quadruple what the state says.
Five percent of Texas high school students dropped out in the 1999-2000 school year, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Texas Education Agency says the dropout rate that year was 1.3 percent.
The gap between the two agencies fuels a long-standing criticism of the state: that its way of counting dropouts artificially lessens the apparent size of the problem.
“The state number just misleads the public,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center at Clemson University.
“It lets people think, ‘Yeah, we have a dropout problem, but it’s small enough that I can live with it.’ They shrug it off. But the truth isn’t livable.”
The National Center for Education Statistics, a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, calculated annual dropout rates for the 100 largest school districts in America. It found rates of 6.3 percent in Dallas and 9 percent in Fort Worth. The state’s official dropout rates for the two districts are 1.2 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.
What’s unusual about the two calculations is that they’re based on the same data. Both rely on the same dropout-tracking system that districts use to gather information about those who quit school.
“They took our numbers, but they crunched them using their own definition,” said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe.
There are two big differences in the way the rates are calculated. First, the federal definition looks at only high school students. The TEA also includes seventh- and eighth-graders in the calculation. Because only a small number of those younger students drop out, their inclusion makes the dropout rate smaller.
The other difference covers students who say they plan to pursue a General Educational Development certificate after dropping out. If they say they will, the TEA doesn’t count them as dropouts. The national center counts them as dropouts unless they earn a GED within a year of quitting school.
Because it used a different definition from the federal government, the TEA was never able to report the state’s dropout data to the national center in a form it could use. This was the first year it did so, which is why this is the first year the federal government reported a Texas dropout rate.
Texas is not alone in using a different definition. The national center calculates dropout rates for only 36 states and the District of Columbia. Of those, Texas ranked 24th in 1999-2000. It had by far the most dropouts of any state, with more than 54,000, but that’s because other large states such as California, Florida and New York did not report data.
The new federal numbers are in line with the findings of a study conducted for The Dallas Morning News last year by Just for the Kids. That study said 20 percent of students entering Texas high schools in 1994 did not graduate, or roughly 5 percent per year.
“I think the NCES definition is closer to what people think when they think of a dropout,” said Chrys Dougherty, director of research at Just for the Kids, a nonprofit education research organization based in Austin.
State officials acknowledge the complaints about the state’s methodology, and they say the system is being changed. In 2004, when the state institutes its new accountability system, it will no longer use the annual dropout rate in setting school ratings. Instead, it will use a calculation called a completion rate, which
looks only at high school and tracks students over four or more years.
“We’re willing to listen to anyone who can suggest ways for us to improve the way we count and try to prevent dropouts,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.
Those trying to bring attention to the dropout problem have long been stymied by the many different ways to calculate a rate. In the numbers-driven world of education, it can be difficult to rally support for solving a problem without an agreed-upon way to measure it.
“I would bet every dollar that I have in my bank account that the real dropout rate in Texas is even higher than the NCES number,” said Dr. Smink of Clemson, who said he thinks more than 30 percent of Texas students drop out over the four years of high school.
State officials say Texas has a dropout problem, no matter what definition or calculation one uses.
“I’m not interested in how the number is figured. I know there’s a problem,” Gov. Rick Perry said in April.
Some of the most surprising numbers in the federal report involved Houston, which state statistics say had a 3.2 percent annual dropout rate in 1999-2000. The federal report said the rate was 11.2 percent.
If those numbers are representative of Houston’s dropout problem, about four out of every 10 entering freshmen drop out over the course of high school.
Houston also had a 12th-grade dropout rate of 24.6 percent – the highest of any of the 100 largest school districts in the country. Houston officials said they could not explain the high rate for seniors and were checking the data.