But Who's Counting?

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.")

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing