But Who's Counting?

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

The August report concedes that some school districts do a poor job of documenting student withdrawals, either not understanding what they are supposed to submit to the state or simply not keeping any records at all.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics also collects dropout data. It has exemptions, though not quite as many as Texas. It doesn't, for instance, exempt dropouts who've dropped out before, those who don't pass the exit-level TAAS, or those who've decided to take the GED route. Texas is seeking to submit its data and become part of the national report -- Cloudt says 30 to 35 states are in it now -- although none of the states most comparable to Texas and its diverse population (Florida, California, New York) participate in the NCES study.

Presented with both sets of data, Texans can decide which comes closer to painting the true dropout picture. Neither one approaches the more frightening attrition numbers.

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.

"Let me not be unkind," says Joe Bernal. "The state is making an effort to reduce dropout rates, but it is not a realistic picture. Measured longitudinally, Dallas has about a 30 percent dropout rate, and San Antonio about 30 percent."

The state's insistence on its calculations "has made it a laughingstock," Bernal says. He sees the whole process as political -- whatever progress students make is associated with the governor who appoints the people in charge of the state Board of Education. Bad news about the state of education in Texas would not be good for either Governor Rick Perry or our former governor, President George W. Bush, Bernal says.

"If I get to define the terms of what a dropout is, I can make the numbers anything, and that historically is what the Texas Education Agency was able to do," Scott says. "Through its control of the definitions of terms, it was able to pretend that 360,000 ninth-graders who become 200,000-something tenth-graders is not a dropout.

"They get to rewrite the laws of physics and morality and ethics and pretend that they don't exist."

The state could track down the missing students. That would tell Texas whether they are truly dropouts. But, Bernal says, a TEA staff member told him once that would just be too costly.

"In the short run, we're saving money," Bernal says. "In the long run we're spending a lot more as our policies result in people who end up in juvenile detention, jail and maybe in our welfare system." Montecel agrees, saying that undereducated kids result in billions of dollars of lost tax base and increased criminal justice costs. "We also found for every dollar you spend educating kids and ensuring they finish high school, the state gets $9 in return, so it's a good investment," she says.

It is a grand illusion to believe that fewer than 2 percent of Texas kids are dropping out of high school. It serves politicians, the TEA and school administrators who need beautiful images to keep their careers afloat. It does nothing for the children who are dropping out, nothing for the society that has to deal with them afterward. And as the state's Hispanic population continues to surge, we are ignoring something that becomes more pressing day by day.

"One point nine percent has no more use than used toilet paper," George Scott says. "As long as the people of the state of Texas want to believe that crap that's coming out of TEA, then they can do so at their children's own peril."

Even if it is argued that these exemptions are well-intentioned, even if smart analysts armed with calculators and computers can lay out these dropout rates in elaborate charts with Byzantine formulas, even if this is the way we have been doing it, none of that makes what the TEA is doing right or defensible. All it is asking us to do is play Let's Pretend, which in this case is nothing but a very dishonest, damaging game.

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