• by Roy L. Johnson, M.S. • IDRA Newsletter • October 1999
In Texas over the last 13 years, the percent of students of all races and ethnicities lost from public school enrollment has worsened. It was 33 percent in 1986. Today, it is 42 percent.
The latest attrition study by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) shows that 53 percent of Hispanic students and 48 percent of Black students were lost from public school enrollment, compared to 31 percent of White students, between 1995-96 and 1998-99 in Texas. The attrition rate is the percent of students lost from enrollment
“Schools, communities and policy-makers can and must work together to ensure that we provide quality education for all students,” commented Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA’s executive director. “We cannot remain in denial about the severity of the dropout problem and refuse to take the actions necessary to keep students in school,” she said.
To follow are the major findings of IDRA’s latest annual attrition study, which presents data for the 1998-99 school year by statewide total, by county, and by race and ethnicity. This article also restates recommendations from the IDRA policy brief entitled, Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools that was released earlier this year. The article also looks at dropout information reported by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) including the new “leaver” record system.
Findings of IDRA’s Latest Attrition Analyses
Two of every five students from the freshman class of 1995-96 left school prior to their 1998-99 graduation from Texas public high schools. IDRA research shows that 42 percent of the state’s 1995-96 freshman class were lost from public school enrollment by 1998-99, the same percentage of students lost between 1994-95 and 1997-98 (see Longitudinal Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools, 1985-86 to 1998-99).
Though the attrition rate has remained relatively stable over the last few years, the rate is 27 percent higher than in 1985-86 when the attrition rate was 33 percent.
Longitudinally, the attrition rate in Texas public schools has increased by nine percentage points from 1985-86 (33 percent) to 1997-98 (42 percent). Numerically, 151,779 students were lost from public high school enrollment during the period of 1995-96 to 1998-99 as compared to 86,276 during the period of 1982-83 to 1985-86.
The 1985-86 school year marked the initial year that IDRA conducted the state’s first comprehensive assessment of the number and percent of Texas public school students who are lost from public school enrollment prior to graduation. Thirteen years following the release of its first comprehensive report in October 1986, IDRA continues to document the number and percent of the state’s students who leave school prior to graduation. IDRA advocates dropout prevention and accurate dropout data collection and reporting by school districts and the state education agency.
The latest study by IDRA reveals that attrition rates continue to be alarmingly high. Major findings of IDRA’s 1998-99 attrition study indicate the following.
- From 1985-86 to 1998-99 more than 1.3 million students have been lost from Texas public schools due to attrition.
- Two of every five students enrolled in the ninth grade in Texas public schools during the 1995-96 school year failed to reach the 12th grade in 1998-99. An estimated 151,779 students, or about 42 percent of the 1995-96 freshman class, were lost from public school enrollment by 1998-99.
- Black students and Hispanic students were more likely than White students to be lost from public school enrollment in 1998-99. Fifty-three percent of Hispanic students and 48 percent of Black students were lost from public school enrollment, compared to 31 percent of White students. Hispanic students were 1.7 times more likely than White students to leave school before graduation while Black students were 1.5 times more likely than White students to leave school before completing high school.
- From 1997-98 to 1998-99, three racial-ethnic groups had a decline in attrition rates. Native American students had a decline from 42 percent to 25 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander students had a decline from 21 percent to 19 percent, and Black students had a decline from 49 percent to 48 percent. The attrition rates for White students and Hispanic students remained constant, 31 percent and 53 percent, respectively.
- More males than females were lost from public high school enrollment. Between 1995-96 and 1998-99, 45 percent of males were lost from public high school enrollment, compared to 38 percent of females.
- The percent of students lost from public high school enrollment has increased by 27.3 percent between the 1985-86 school year (33 percent) and the 1998-99 school year (42 percent). The number of students lost through attrition has increased from about 86,000 in 1985-86 to about 152,000 in 1998-99.
- Hispanic students made up the highest percentage of students lost from public high school enrollment in 1998-99. About half (50.1 percent) of the students lost from school enrollment were Hispanic. White students comprised 39.1 percent of the students lost from enrollment and Black students comprised 16.8 percent.
Enrollment and attrition data for the 1995-96 and 1998-99 school years are categorized by race and ethnicity. Statewide and county attrition rates are presented for the three major race and ethnicity groups.
TEA’s Dropout and School Leaver Report
Texas public schools report dropout information to TEA through the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS). Under the Texas accountability system, district accountability ratings are based on a combined consideration of district and particular student group performances on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), attendance rates and dropout rates.
House Bill 1010, which became law in 1986, requires that TEA collect and calculate longitudinal and annual dropout rates for students in grades seven through 12. The bill mandates that the state reduce the statewide longitudinal dropout rate to not more that 5 percent of the total student population in grades seven through 12 by the year 2000.
The state definition of a dropout is:
A student is identified as a dropout if the individual is absent without an approved excuse or documented transfer and does not return to school by the fall of the following school year, or if he or she completes the school year but fails to re-enroll the following school year (TEA, 1998).
According to TEA, the dropout rate has declined steadily for almost a decade. The reported annual dropout rate was 1.6 percent in 1996-97 and in 1997-98 down from 6.7 percent in 1987-88. See the box below for data from the two most recent reports.
Besides IDRA’s annual reporting of the magnitude of the dropout problem and the need for accurate dropout data, 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 and unverified counts, the state auditor estimated that the 1994 actual dropout rate was more than double the reported rate. As recently as 1998, the state auditor stated that underreporting of dropouts must be addressed by TEA.
This year, TEA attempted to track the status of students in grades seven to 12 over a one-year period through district-submitted reports. In May 1999, TEA released its first dropout and school leaver report entitled, 1996-97 and 1997-98 Returning and Non-Returning Students in Grades 7-12. The new report summarizes school leaver information for individual districts with enrollments of 100 or more pupils. It provides counts and percentages for returning and non-returning students, including unreported students for the 1996-97 school year and underreported students for the 1997-98 school year.
In the 1998-99 PEIMS submission, school districts were given two choices for reporting enrollment information on all students enrolled in the district at any time during the 1997-98 school year in grades seven through 12:
- Report a student as enrolled during the current school year, or
- Report the student as a “leaver” on the leaver record and provide at least one departure reason for that student.
The school leaver report indicates that in many of the larger school districts, schools could not account for significant percentages of their pupils from one year to the next. Yet, rather than counting these “unreported students” as dropouts, the agency chose to disregard these numbers and continued to use official dropout numbers reflected in the data repoted.
Many if not most of the “unreported pupils” reflected for many districts were probably dropouts that the new school leaver codes made more difficult to brush under the carpet.
Perhaps for the first time in TEA’s history, there was an admission that a significant number of students were not included in the annual dropout counts reported by school districts to the agency. The agency estimated that more than 55,000 students were underreported as dropouts or school leavers.
In the dropout reporting for the 1997-98 school year, the agency used 37 “leaver codes” in three areas: graduate, leaver, and dropout. The number of leaver codes increased from 22 in the 1996-97 school year and earlier. The box below compares the various school leaver codes listed by the agency for the 1996-97 and 1997-98 school years. The leaver codes give schools more options for categorizing students, which can have the result of further masking the dropout problem.
The findings of the TEA school leaver report are quoted as follows.
- “Thirty-seven leaver reason codes were available to describe the circumstances of each student’s departure.”
- “New leaver codes include such circumstances as withdrawal to enroll in a private school, withdrawal to attend another public school, withdrawal to attend school out-of-state, withdrawal to be home schooled, and death.”
- “Prior to the leaver collection, districts were required to report information on returning students, graduates, and dropouts, but not on other kinds of leavers.”
- “Many more students in these grades are being accounted for via the new leaver record reporting requirements. In 1997-98, approximately 3.6 percent of the students who left the system statewide were underreported, whereas for previous years the amount of unreported students was approximately 18.1 percent.”
- “Not all students reported in attendance in grades seven through 12 during 1997-98 have leaver or enrollment information from the appropriate district for 1998-99. Although statewide, 3.6 percent of all students in grades seven through 12 the prior year were underreported, for districts with at least 100 students in enrollment (not including charter schools), the percent underreported ranges from 0.0 percent to 59.5 percent.”
- “Some students were reported as leavers even though those students had not been reported in attendance or enrollment the prior school year. Thus, this analysis indicated both ‘under’ and ‘over’ reporting of the students from the prior year.”
- “A significant portion of both the underreported and overreported students can be attributed to personal identification (PID) errors, i.e., student identification inconsistencies that prevent perfect matching of one student record to another record reported for that student. PID errors are usually generated when one or more of the following characteristics do not match the PEIMS PID data base: student ID [either a social security number or state identification number], last name, first name, or date of birth. Because of this, TEA made efforts to reduce the number of underreported student attributes to each district by matching records on information other than the PEIMS student identification number.”
Other findings of the TEA school leaver report include the following.
- Data on the disposition of duplicated student cases in 1996-97 showed that 69.4 percent of all students in grades seven through 12 were reported as returning students compared to 71.1 percent in 1997-98. Conversely, 30.6 percent of these students were reported as non-returning in 1996-97 as compared to 28.9 percent in 1997-98.
- For unduplicated student counts, 72.8 percent of all students in grades seven through 12 were reported as returning students in 1996-97 compared to 75.1 percent in 1997-98. About 27.2 percent of all students in grades seven through 12 in 1996-97 were reported as non-returning students compared to 24.9 percent in 1997-98.
In a statement, then State Education Commissioner Michael Moses acknowledged the problem with the large number of unreported student records and warned districts that next year’s ratings might count these desaparecidos (lost pupils) as dropouts.
“The inclusion of these ‘unreported pupil’ numbers in either this year’s or next year’s dropout counts would send a shock wave all over the state and perhaps help wake up a populace that has been lulled into thinking that dropout rates are no longer an issue in Texas,” commented Dr. Albert Cortez, director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership.
What the TEA Report Does Not Say
Interestingly, the TEA report does not provide a full context for assessing the statewide number and percent of students who failed to graduate. Most of the report provides percentages of students returning or not returning without clearly providing the magnitude of the number of students reported as graduates, dropouts and other school leavers (see box below).
Following are some observations that TEA failed to mention in its school leaver report.
- Of the 1.7 million students in grades seven through 12 in 1996-97, an estimated 464,024 students were classified as “non-returning” students. The 27.2 percent non-returning rate translates into almost a half million students who did not return to the school of record.
- Of the 1.7 million students in grades seven through 12 in 1997-98, an estimated 434,042 students were classified as “non-returning” students. The 24.9 percent non-returning rate translates into almost a half million students who did not return to the school of record.
- The enrollment status of an estimated 245,933 students was not reported by school districts in 1996-97.
- An estimated 55,123 students were underreported as dropouts or school leavers in 1997-98.
These observations are based on the “duplicated student count” data. The school leaver report also included parallel data based on “duplicated student counts.”
Recommendations for Improving State Dropout Accounting
The collection and reporting of accurate longitudinal dropout data is a must. The state of Texas has made significant strides in the development of an accountability system that is receiving national attention as a model of educational accountability. The absence of accurate longitudinal dropout data is serving to undermine this system.
In January of this year, IDRA disseminated its policy brief on the dropout issue in Texas. Missing: Texas Youth – Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools presents an in-depth look at the dropout issue and provides some answers and recommendations for the collection and reporting of “real” numbers of students missing from Texas schools.
In its policy brief, IDRA made the following recommendations for improving state and local dropout identification, counting and reporting procedures.
- Revise the goal of the state dropout program to comply with the mandate:
The goal of the program shall be to reduce the actual statewide longitudinal dropout rate to not more than 5 percent, such that a minimum of 95 percent of any class of students enrolling in Texas public schools will receive their high school diploma.
- Modify state policy requirements so that a “dropout” is defined as follows:
A student is defined as a dropout if the student enrolled in Texas public schools does not receive a high school diploma and for whom the state has no proof of re-enrollment in a school within or outside of Texas that has the authority to grant high school diplomas. The definition should not include students enrolled in Texas public schools who:
- are enrolled in school-based General Education Development (GED) programs,
- have successfully completed all high school course requirements but have not passed the TAAS, and
- are reported as having returned to their home country, but for whom there is no verification of enrollment by a receiving school.
- Require each public school district in Texas, on a yearly basis, to report to the state education agency the number of students enrolled in Texas public schools who:
- are enrolled in school-based GED programs,
- have successfully completed all high school course requirements but have not passed the TAAS, and
- are reported as having returned to their home country, but for whom there is no verification.
These students should be reported separately and not be included in the dropout definition.
- Modify the state education agency procedure for computing the actual state longitudinal dropout rate: The following computation is an example of how the rate could be calculated:
The state longitudinal dropout rate is calculated by determining the total number of students enrolled in Texas public schools in seventh grade and subtracting the total number of those same students receiving a high school diploma five years later, excluding students who will not graduate but are still enrolled in the regular school program that leads to acquiring a high school diploma (such as students who were retained or do not have sufficient credits), divided by the number of pupils in the original seventh grade group and multiplying by 100 to determine the percentage.
- Require that a school district’s longitudinal dropout rate be tied to the state’s accountability system, the Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS): A school district must accurately report its longitudinal dropout rate for groups of individual students (cohorts) to the state education agency as it reports each year all other AEIS indicators, which are factored into the district’s accountability rating.
- Require that each local school district establish local dropout oversight committee(s) or task force(s) including parent representatives, private sector representatives and school staff: These committees should regularly and systematically monitor the dropout identification, counting, and reporting process and dropout prevention efforts at their campuses and districts. Such efforts should be part of the regular school program involving regular school staff.
- Require that the state education agency establish a site monitoring team that is responsible for maintaining the integrity of the statewide dropout data: A trigger mechanism should be developed for the team to review cases where the district attrition rate is more than 10 percent of their reported dropout rate.
- Require that the state education agency collect information on the reasons students drop out of school in a way tat significantly decreases the number of “unknown” reasons for dropping out: Information should also include data on school-related dropout factors such as school retention rates, school faculty attrition, credentials and experience, and school per-pupil expenditures.
- Require that the state education agency collect and disseminate information on local districts’ dropout prevention and recovery efforts: This should include proven strategies used and evidence of effectiveness in lowering the dropout rate.
Despite growing concerns about the accuracy in counting and reporting dropout data, the Texas legislature in its most recent session failed to enact any significant legislation to improve the accuracy of methods to count and report dropouts. In order to alleviate some of the pressure on Texas schools with a high number of dropouts and to shadow the concerns about the accuracy of dropout data reported by the state education agency, the Texas legislature provided a special allocation of $85 million to finance special intervention programs for ninth grade students identified as at-risk of dropping out (Cortez, 1999).
With the release of its latest study on the percent of returning and non-returning students, it appears that the state is still more intent on finding ways to lower the dropout numbers rather than on lowering the number of dropouts. Without accurate dropout data tied to the accountability system, people can erroneously conclude that the dropout problem is either solved, minimal, or only affects minority students (Robledo Montecel, 1999). 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 and to informing urgently needed strategic dropout prevention and recovery efforts.
Cortez, A. “Texas Legislative Update,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1999).
Robledo Montecel, M. $319 Billion and 1.2 Million Students Lost: Remarks to the State Board of Education Committee on Planning (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, January 7, 1999).
Supik, J. and R. Johnson. Missing: Texas Youth?– Dropout and Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1999).
Texas Education Agency. 1996-97 and 1997-98 Returning and Non-Returning Students in Grades 7-12 (Austin, May 14, 1999).
Texas Education Agency. Texas Dropout Rates by Ethnicity. http://www.tea.state.tx.us/research/dropout/9798/appendb/state.html (1998).
Roy Johnson, M.S., directs the IDRA Division of Evaluation Research. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1999, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 1999 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]