Column: True dropout rate? It takes calculating

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Traditionally, Aristotle is given credit for formulating something called the Law of Non-Contradiction. It holds that two contradictory ideas cannot both be true at the same time.

As a test case, let’s take a look at the Houston school district:

* Houston ISD’s official annual dropout rate is only 1.5 percent.

* In 2001-02, Houston high schools enrolled 19,370 freshmen – and only 7,756 seniors.

Best of luck wrapping your head around that one. Somehow, thousands of kids get lost on the path to graduation, but the district’s dropout rate remains microscopic.

Not too long ago, the Texas Education Agency figured out that HISD didn’t pass the sniff test and launched an audit into the way the district counts its dropouts. Last month, state officials announced they had found enough deception and incompetence to lower the state ratings of 15 Houston schools.

The national media have loved the story as much as you’d expect, considering Houston’s former superintendent (Rod Paige) now leads the U.S. Department of Education. (There’s a fellow named Bush who gets mentioned a lot, too.) The New York Times has written about Houston dropouts at least seven times in the last couple months, twice in front-page stories.

But one thing’s been lost in all the attention. Houston isn’t the exception. It’s more like the rule.

“It’s a real mess,” said Jay Smink, executive director of the National Dropout Prevention Center. “Houston is certainly not unique.”

I’m not saying that everyone commits fraud on the same scale that’s alleged in Houston. I am saying, though, that if you want to know the size of a school’s dropout problem, the number it reports as its official dropout rate is often one of the worst places to start.

“As honest as they all want to be, I think most states have problems with what they report,” Dr. Smink said.

Why does an accurate dropout rate matter? (Aside from the old-fashioned value of honesty.) For one thing, it’s hard to tell if things are getting better if we don’t know how many dropouts there are to start with. For another, every Texas high school’s state rating is based in part on its dropout rate. Too many dropouts and a school’s rating drops.

That creates a laudable incentive for schools to get their dropout rates down. They can do this by keeping more kids in school – or they can do it by playing with records until they produce a number that seems low enough for comfort.

Take Dallas, for instance. DISD’s official dropout rate is 1.1 percent. In 2001-02, it enrolled 15,097 freshmen and just 6,307 seniors.

I wonder what Aristotle would do with that one.

Kimball High School’s records show it enrolled 677 freshmen and only 252 seniors. The total number of dropouts at Kimball in 2000-01, the most recent year available? One.

The previous year? Zero.

Unlike state tests – which are written and graded by people far away from campus – dropout rates are reported by schools. They’re, shall we say, “flexible.”

State policy requires schools to assign a special code to every kid who leaves school. Kids who get assigned certain codes are counted as dropouts. But there are other codes that mean kids can disappear without counting against the school’s record.

Sometimes, that’s legitimate. If a kid transfers to a private school, for instance, he obviously isn’t a dropout. But many schools have figured out that certain codes can be abused. That was the problem in Houston.

And I’d bet you $20 that if TEA started auditing schools elsewhere, it’d find that’s the problem around the state.

Check for yourself: Go to the TEA Web site ( and look up something called an AEIS report for your school or your district. That’ll give you all the numbers you need to run your own rough comparison. It’s certainly not an exact measure, but a wide gap should tell you something about your school’s ability to keep hold of its students.

In 2001-02, Texas schools enrolled 364,270 freshmen – and 225,756 seniors. The state’s official annual dropout rate: 1 percent.

No matter how you slice those numbers, they don’t end up with a legitimate 1 percent dropout rate.

To be fair to Texas, you can find the same problems elsewhere. I called around to a few randomly chosen states, and they all reported annual dropout rates of 2 percent or 3 percent – lower than what their enrollment figures would suggest. “Every state reports numbers that are too low,” Dr. Smink said.

Want evidence of how widespread the fudging is? In 1988, before the state developed the rating system it uses to judge schools, Texas’ annual dropout rate was 6.7 percent. Last year, it was 1 percent.

That would seem to indicate Texas has eliminated about 85 percent of its dropout problem in a little over a decade.

Anyone who believes that is welcome to head to eBay, where I’m offering a tremendous deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at