But Who's Counting?

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

The parent was insistent. The dropout problem at his school was huge. Between ninth grade and graduation day, roughly half the class had disappeared. "They're not doing a good job of keeping these kids." A call to Heather Browne in public relations at the Houston Independent School District's mother ship asking for that school's dropout rate got a quick, crisp response: "One point nine percent."

Well, 1.9 percent and certified by the Texas Education Agency to boot. That doesn't sound bad. Sometimes parents get things wrong, and this sure looked like one of those instances.

Except it wasn't.

What we have here is one of the great scams of the Texas public education system: its so-called dropout rate, a phrase that seems so clear and obvious that it positively defines itself. But the TEA couldn't leave it at that, so it redefined the term, pitted and patted and marked it with a B. And the B stands for bogus, baby.

At a time when Texas high schools are hemorrhaging Hispanics, losing a large percentage of African-Americans and issuing pregraduation discharges for whites right and left, the TEA and our state leaders say that our dropout rate has declined from 1.6 percent to 1.3 percent on average statewide. Texas Education Commissioner Jim Nelson proudly proclaimed this summer that the Hispanic dropout rate was down to 1.9 percent from 2.3 percent the year before.

HISD gadfly and number cruncher extraordinaire George Scott calls it a gigantic fraud. That's not so surprising from a man who has fought the district on its test scores and who knows he's seen as the obnoxious bearer of bad tidings when he pokes holes in the public image of HISD and other school districts in the state.

But it's tougher to discount Dr. Joe Bernal of San Antonio, a member of the State Board of Education, who calls the TEA's formula for determining dropouts "a big lie." He wants it abandoned.

Dr. Maria "Cuca" Robledo Montecel, executive director of the nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio, was commissioned by Texas to do the first statewide study of dropouts in 1986. She sets the present-day dropout rate at close to 40 percent and believes the TEA's formula drapes a nice, comfortable, camouflaging cover over the truth.

And state Senator Carlos Truan, a Corpus Christi Democrat, doesn't believe the TEA numbers are worth squat either, even calling them "treasonous." He has said he will introduce legislation to change the dropout formula if the TEA doesn't show him numbers he believes.

Without recognition of the real dropout problem in Texas -- and critics set the overall student attrition rate at many high schools at between 30 percent and 50 percent -- they say Texas kids aren't getting help, and end up lost and in trouble.

Hispanics, with the highest dropout rate of all, track consistently from kindergarten through ninth grade. And then they fall off the face of the earth.

Figuring a dropout rate seems simple enough. Start with 1,000 kids in ninth grade, graduate 500 four years later, and that's 50 percent. That seems straightforward enough.

Except, of course, that this doesn't account for kids who die, move or transfer to private schools.

Even George Scott, who favors this longitudinal approach, readily concedes asterisks would need to be factored into any such study for a true dropout rate. But he sees the TEA method, offering 24 separate exemptions, as riddled with excuses.

"They're not in school. But TEA says they're not a dropout. So I call it the evaporation rate." His study of Texas students showed an overall attrition rate of 38 percent among students graduating in 1997, with 46 percent for African-Americans, 49 percent for Hispanics and 28 percent for whites. He maintains his assessment is a lot more legitimate than the annualized system used by the state.

"In the old days, being five, six, seven, eight years ago, the Texas Education Agency was so dishonest and so disreputable and so corrupt and so fraudulent in its representation of the dropout rate that they were forced to begin dealing with explanations of how there were so many ninth-graders and so few tenth-graders," Scott says. Despite increasing criticism, the TEA has been allowed to continue the system it came up with in 1988 because, Scott says: "We have a bunch of gutless members of the Texas legislature who allow the TEA to get away with it."

Without getting too deep into technicalities here, the state computes dropouts by taking the number of students who withdraw during a school year and dividing it by the total number of students enrolled that same year.

But like a federal tax return, there are exemptions. If, for instance, a student says he's being homeschooled (no proof needed), he's not a dropout. If a student says he's going home to Mexico (whether he does or not), he's not a dropout. He's not a dropout if he commits a crime, serves time in a juvenile facility and then never returns to his home school. A student who leaves school and gets his GED is not a dropout. A student who has dropped out before, comes back and then drops out again is not a dropout. (The TEA says this is done to avoid unintended negative consequences for these students because students who drop out once are more likely to drop out again. "Including repeat dropouts in the count could discourage districts from aggressively trying to recover these students.")  

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.

"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.

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.

"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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