But Who's Counting?

Thousands of students disappear from our schools yearly, but the TEA insists they're not dropouts

In all, these 24 exemptions -- according to Bernal, one or two are added each year -- do a wonderful job of whittling the numbers. Which means more schools in the state can still make their "recognized" and "exemplary" ratings -- impossible to do if you have too many low test scores and too many officially certified dropouts.

"We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars so we can produce students who get a GED?" Scott says in full rhetorical outrage. "The purpose of our hundreds of millions of dollars of state expenditures was to get a kid from kindergarten to the ninth grade to be homeschooled and not count as a dropout?"

While the nation turns to Texas to find out how its students have so greatly improved their scores on the state's standardized tests, Scott wants to know why this amazing turning of the tide isn't accompanied by a higher percentage of kids staying in the classroom.

Critics believe the TEA's dropout rate significantly underestimates a major problem facing the state.
Deron Neblett
Critics believe the TEA's dropout rate significantly underestimates a major problem facing the state.

"If I am producing 80 to 90 percent of my eighth-grade kids who can pass reading, who can pass writing, and that number was 30 and 40 percent six and seven years ago, by God we ought to be getting more ninth-graders from the ninth grade to the tenth grade on time," he says.

Scott calls the "goes back to home country" exemption a farce. "We have a unique phenomenon in Texas that may not have been observed until the TEA uncovered it. In Texas we have a tremendous number of ninth-, tenth-, 11th- and 12th-grade Hispanic students who move back to their country without taking their younger brothers and sisters with them. We have ninth-grade Hispanics moving back to their native country without taking anyone else in their family with them. Just so the state of Texas can lie through its teeth about the dropout rate.

"The whole system is fraudulent and academically corrupt," Scott concludes. "We have phony results, phony images."

Criss Cloudt, the TEA's associate commissioner for accountability, reporting and research, seems to be a perfectly nice person with a calm, reasoned approach. She acknowledges that not everyone finds her agency's statistics believable. And she predicts that since there are no plans to drop any of the 24 exemptions, there will still be critics after the system is revised starting in the 2003-04 school year.

There are four ways the TEA could "measure student progress." Besides the TEA's annual dropout rate, there's the completion rate, defined as "the percentage of students from a class of 7th or 9th graders who graduate, receive a GED or are in school when the class graduates." This is a positive measurement, counting the ones remaining, not who's missing.

There's the longitudinal dropout rate, the percentage of students from a class of seventh- or ninth-graders who drop out before completing high school. And there's the attrition rate, which is the percentage of students from a class of ninth-graders who are not enrolled in 12th grade four years later. This one has the numbers that tie in with the analyses done by Scott and Montecel. The TEA's numbers for the 1999-00 school year for grades nine through 12 show an attrition rate of 36.6 percent.

In the August report titled "Secondary School Completion and Dropouts in Public Schools 1999-00," the TEA notes that while its formula produces the lowest numbers, these "may not correspond to the public's understanding of a dropout rate."

It isn't just that the state has come up with all these excuses for not calling dropouts dropouts that's so upsetting. By minimizing the numbers, the TEA renders the dropouts a low priority in the fight for state funding.

It's all fine that Cloudt says, "We have a significant Hispanic dropout problem" no matter how the figures are computed. But this is an analyst used to seeing a sea of changes in a difference of three-tenths of a percent. Most people's reaction would be closer to that of Bernal: "A 1 percent, a 2 percent dropout rate. Who's going to be bothered by that?"

There are so many spots where the TEA system breaks down. From its own documents: "Districts are not required to track students who withdraw with intent to enroll elsewhere to confirm that they do re-enroll." Out of 155,711 students reported to have withdrawn in 1999-00 to transfer to other public schools, 29,041 students (19 percent) "could not be found in enrollment records submitted by other districts." The TEA surmises that some weren't found because new records didn't match old ones, or they enrolled in private schools, alternative schools or GED programs, or were being homeschooled. "It is also possible that some never returned to school." No kidding.

Yet none of these 29,041 kids can be listed as dropouts under the TEA counting method. Even more outrageous: In the 1997-98 school year, a full 31 percent of kids who said they were transferring to another public school never showed up, according to official records. But they weren't listed as dropouts either.

The TEA defends this practice, saying that to add "unverified transfers to the dropout rate would distort the meaning of the dropout measure and decrease its effectiveness as a performance indicator." Ahem. What effectiveness, pray tell? It is reassuring to read, however, that districts with high percentages of unverified in-state transfers are investigated. How that's done isn't explained.

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