“319 Billion Dollars and 1.2 Million Students Lost”

Remarks to the State Board of Education Committee on Planning
María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Intercultural Development Research Association
January 7, 1999

In 1986, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) conducted the first comprehensive statewide study of school dropouts in Texas. Using a high school attrition formula, IDRA estimated that 86,000 students had not graduated from Texas public schools that year, costing the state $17.12 billion in foregone income, lost tax revenues and increased criminal justice, welfare, unemployment and job training costs.

By 1998 – 12 years later – the estimated cumulative number of Texas school dropouts has grown to more than 1.2 million. Because these students were unable to complete high school, the state of Texas loses $319 billion dollars.

While much has been said about reducing the dropout rate, little has been accomplished. IDRA’s annual estimates show that the attrition rate of 33 percent in 1985-86 has increased to 42 percent in 1997-98. The Texas Education Code directs the state to achieve a longitudinal dropout rate of 5 percent by 1997-98. In December 1995, this board restated that goal in its Long Range Plan for Public Education 1996-2000. It is now 1999, and by all estimates (including those of the Texas Education Agency) we have fallen far short of meeting the goal. We have failed our youth.

It is the responsibility of this board and this state to assure that the goal of a 5 percent or less longitudinal dropout rate is met. To do that, we must have an accurate picture of where we are, where we are going and how we are to get there.

As a starting point, the state must collect accurate longitudinal dropout data. Texas has made significant strides in developing an accountability system, one that is being looked to as a national model. However, without accurate longitudinal dropout data tied to the accountability system, it is easy to wrongly conclude that the dropout issue is either solved, minimal or affects only minority children.

IDRA research shows that the dropout issue has not been solved, is not minimal and affects students of all colors. One out of three White students and one out of two African American students and Hispanic students who were in the ninth grade in 1994-95 were not enrolled in high school in 1997-98 (what would have been their 12th grade year).

This problem has not gone away. It cannot be solved by the changing methodologies, the obtuse dropout definitions, and dropout “recovery” adjustments that have characterized efforts to date.

Since 1987 the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has been calculating annual dropout rates, and during the last few years longitudinal rates have been estimated. The agency had the data necessary to calculate an actual longitudinal dropout rate with the 1996 dropout data collection, but instead explored the calculation and use of a school completion rate. The Texas Education Code mandates the calculation of a “longitudinal dropout rate.” The state must comply with this mandate.

The accuracy of an actual longitudinal dropout rate depends on how “dropouts” are defined and how dropout rates are calculated.

This state has suffered from a focus on lowering the dropout numbers as opposed to lowering the number of dropouts. This has resulted in changing definitions, unverified school data, and adjusted dropout calculations that mask and understate the severity of the dropout problem in Texas. The inaccuracy of the counting and reporting was underscored by the July 1996 review of TEA by the Texas state auditor. As a result of inaccurate calculations, the state auditor estimated that the 1994 actual dropout rate was more than double the 1994 reported rate. As recently as 1998, the state auditor reported underreporting of dropouts must continue to be addressed by TEA.

Simply put, a dropout is a student who was enrolled in a Texas school, has left school without earning a high school diploma and is not enrolled in any school, within or outside of Texas.

Changing the definition does not change the reality. It is the case that students who leave school and eventually get GEDs are not high school graduates and do not have the same options in life as high school graduates. Not counting them as dropouts, as the state is currently doing, does not improve their life chances or benefit the economic productivity of the state. The same is true for students who have passed their high school course requirements and not passed the TAAS. These students are denied a diploma but are not currently counted as dropouts.

Furthermore, not counting students as dropouts by “recovering” them on paper only is self-deception and does not ensure the students will graduate. Over a six-year period, this “recovery” rate increased from 7.6 percent in 1990-91 to 35 percent in 1997-98, with the consequent decrease of the reported dropout rate. The recovery rate increased and the reported dropout rate decreased, for example, by removing from the dropout count and adding to the recovery count students who have received a GED or are enrolled in a GED program, students who have completed their high school course requirements but have not passed the TAAS, and students who left school to go to jail. The reality is that not a single student received a high school diploma as a result of these so-called recovery efforts.

What is needed is a state longitudinal dropout rate that follows groups of individual students (cohorts) over a period of time and determines what happened to them. Students who have received a GED or are enrolled in a GED program and students who have completed their high school course requirements but are denied a high school diploma for failure to pass the TAAS should be counted as dropouts. The school leaver codes that the agency has begun to use will provide insight on reasons students are leaving school. They should not be used to artificially lower dropout rates.

The availability of accurate longitudinal data on school dropouts, tied to the Academic Excellence Indicator System, is critical to maintaining the credibility of the school accountability system. It is also critical to informing urgently needed strategic dropout prevention and recovery efforts.

We urge this board to take all steps necessary to assure that a credible accounting of dropouts is established and maintained by ensuring that policies and procedures result in: an accurate longitudinal dropout rate, appropriate school leaver codes that define dropouts and verifiable reporting procedures.

Failure to take these steps has already cost the state $319 billion dollars and 1.2 million students. This state cannot afford further losses in human capital and economic productivity.

As you proceed, please know that IDRA is available to work with you and continues to be available to serve as a resource to the agency and the state legislature at this important juncture.

IDRA is an independent, non-profit organization, directed by María Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., dedicated to creating schools that work for all children. As a vanguard leadership development and research team for 26 years, IDRA has worked with people to create self-renewing schools that value and empower all children, families and communities. IDRA conducts research and development activities, creates, implements and administers innovative education programs and provides teacher, administrator, and parent training and technical assistance.

“319 Billion Dollars and 1.2 Million Students Lost”