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McNeil refuses to disclose what school district was studied. In presentations she has made around the state, teachers from several big-city districts have approached her, certain she is talking about them.
In whatever urban district they did study, researchers found that 60 percent of African-American students, 75 percent of Hispanic students and 80 percent of ESL (English as a Second Language) students did not graduate within five years. They found an overall graduation rate of only 33 percent and figured that each year, Texas high schools lose at least 135,000 youth before graduation.
According to their assessment: 25 percent of Anglo students who should have graduated, fail to do that every year. The percentage of African Americans who fail to graduate is closer to 45 percent overall and greater than 50 percent for African-American boys. Hispanics graduate at slightly under 50 percent.
The discrepancy between the graduation rates they reported and the TEA's official dropout rates in the 2-3 percent range are due to the way the state classifies dropouts, the study says. The state does not classify as dropouts students who leave school because they are pregnant or go to jail or say they are going to Mexico, or say they will be home-schooled or that they are going to take their GED some day. There are no procedures to follow through and see if a student actually does any of those things, even though Texas has a student ID numbering system that operates statewide, McNeil says.
Last week, the Bush administration announced it would change the way graduation rates are being reported and that it would require all states to do so in the same way. The press conference followed the release of a national study done by America's Promise Alliance (chaired by Alma Powell and founded by her husband Colin Powell) that found only about half of the students in the main school systems in the nation's 50 largest cities graduate from high school.
In Houston, the graduation rate was listed at 61.6 percent or 9.3 percentage points lower than its nearby suburbs. The graduation rate for HISD was listed at 54.6 percent by America's Promise Alliance.
That would be termed an unacceptable loss ratio in most businesses.
In Texas, according to the study, a crucial tool employed by principals to hike their scores has been getting a waiver from the state that changes the way students are promoted to the next grade in high school.
"A school under this waiver could base grade promotion on different criteria, such as having to pass four core courses rather than gaining credits," the study says. Teachers and principals knew this policy would cause students to be intentionally held back in the ninth grade. "The rhetoric surrounding this policy centered on 'making sure students are ready for the state 10th grade test,'" the study said.
A student could finish his freshman year and be one credit or even one-half credit shy of what he needed to be a sophomore, and end up officially classified a freshman for the next year. That next year, that student would again take the ninth grade TAKS tests, not the tenth.
Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Houston Independent School District, contradicted this, writing in an e-mail that at least in the HISD "Principals are not allowed to employ a waiver to hold students back." In a later e-mail he wrote that this statement applied for this school year and last, but "at some times in the past ...there were some waivers approved limiting classification to grade 10 to students who had completed certain core courses. The purpose of those waivers was to make sure that students who had not mastered basic core courses would not be reclassified based on having completed a large number of elective courses or local credit courses."
He also insisted that Houston's test scores have improved because the district "is focusing less on accountability ratings and more on individual student growth" and that HISD students are also improving on other national tests.
Teachers and principals interviewed for the accountability study said they felt to apply for waivers was "cheating" but eventually bowed to the pressure for higher test scores. One principal said, "the waiver identified the retained students as 'losers' and pushed them to leave school," the study said. At one school where the waivers were introduced, withdrawal rates of students went from 18 percent to 40 percent in just two years. Students who were retained in ninth grade came to be known as "dropbacks," and their repeating classes were called dropback classes with dropback teachers — enough stigma to go around for everyone, it would seem.
One student told researchers: "Well, that last two years that I was in ninth grade, there were finally classes that I passed and got credit for. But they would put me in the same classes again, so then they would catch that later in the year, which they couldn't do nothing about it, you know."
Another said he was driven out of school by his repeated placement in the algebra class he had passed.
"Oh, yeah, they had me taking algebra forever. I passed the first year, so in the second year I just decided not to go. I tried to get it [the course schedule] fixed, but they wouldn't fix it. So after the third week trying to get it fixed, I just stopped going."