• by Roy L. Johnson, M.S. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2006 • Roy L. Johnson, M.A.

The overall statewide attrition rate in Texas public schools is less than 40 percent for the fifth consecutive year, but the rate is 6 percent higher than it was 21 years ago. In its most recent annual attrition study that examines school holding power in the state of Texas, the Intercultural Development Research Association found that 35 percent of the freshman class of 2002-03 left school prior to graduating from a Texas public high school in the 2005-06 school year. This rate corresponds to more than 137,000 students.

After seven consecutive years of overall statewide attrition rates of 40 percent or higher between 1994-95 through 2000-01, the overall statewide attrition rate of 35 percent in 2005-06 was the lowest since a 34 percent rate in 1991-92 and continues a downward trend over the last several years.

Nonetheless, the current statewide attrition rate in Texas remains higher than the initial rate of 33 percent found in IDRA’s landmark 1985-86 study.

Furthermore, the gaps in attrition rates between White students and Black students and between White students and Hispanic students is actually growing.

School holding power in Texas public schools remains weak and begs for renewed commitment and efforts of all stakeholders to improve school completion and graduation rates of schools and their students.

This 2005-06 attrition study represents the 21st study conducted by IDRA and the latest in a series of reports that began in the 1985-86 school year. In 1986, IDRA conducted Texas’ first comprehensive statewide study of high school dropouts using a high school attrition formula to estimate the number and percent of students who leave school prior to graduation. The study in 1986 was the state’s first major effort to assess the school holding power of Texas public schools (see article entitled “Texas School Holding Power Past, Present and Future”).

This inaugural study, entitled Texas School Dropout Survey Project, was conducted under contract with the Texas Education Agency and the then Texas Department of Community Affairs. It examined three major research questions: (1) What is the magnitude of the dropout problem in the state of Texas?, (2) What is the economic impact of the dropout problem for the state?, and (3) What is the nature and effectiveness of in-school and alternative out-of-school programs for dropouts in the state?

The study found that 86,276 students had not graduated from Texas public high schools, costing the state $17 billion in forgone income, lost tax revenues, and increased job training, welfare, unemployment and criminal justice costs (Cárdenas, Robledo and Supik, 1986).

Twenty years later, other researchers have corroborated IDRA’s attrition numbers and have concurred that attrition is a valid estimate, including the Harvard Civil Rights Project.

During the last several years, study after study of dropouts, school completion and graduation rates have shown that school holding power is dramatically less than desirable. It appears that, regardless of the methodology or calculation procedures used, the overall estimates of the percent of students who leave school range from about 25 percent to 35 percent and that nearly 50 percent of African American students and Hispanic students are lost from enrollment prior to graduation with a diploma.

For over two decades, IDRA has called attention to the need to improve school holding power and for the prevention and recovery of dropouts. Pointing out that 30 percent to 40 percent of Texas students are leaving school prior to graduation has been IDRA’s clarion call to take action to reduce dropout rates and to improve school holding power. Across the United States, reports on dropout rates, school completion rates, and graduation rates continue to point out that school holding power is an urgent local, state and national issue.


Spanning a period from 1985-86 through 2005-06, the IDRA attrition studies have provided time series data, using a consistent methodology, on the number and percent of Texas public school students who leave school prior to graduation. These studies provide information on the effectiveness and success of Texas public high schools in keeping students engaged in school until they graduate with a high school diploma.

The attrition calculations were derived from public school enrollment data in the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS).

During the fall of each year, school districts are required to report information to TEA via the PEIMS for all public school students and grade levels. IDRA’s attrition studies involve an analysis of ninth-grade enrollment figures and 12th-grade enrollment figures four years later. This period represents the time span during which a student would be enrolled in high school.

IDRA collects and uses high school enrollment data from the TEA Fall Membership Survey to compute countywide and statewide attrition rates by race-ethnicity and gender. Enrollment data from special school districts (military schools, state schools and charter schools) are excluded from the analyses because they are likely to have unstable enrollments or lack a tax base for school programs.

Attrition rates are an indicator of a school’s holding power or ability to keep students enrolled in school and learning until they graduate. Along with other dropout measures, attrition rates are useful in studying the magnitude of the dropout problem and the success of schools in keeping students in school.

Attrition, in its simplest form, is the rate of shrinkage in size or number. Therefore, an attrition rate is the percent change in grade level enrollment between a base year and an end year.

Historical statewide attrition rates are categorized by race-ethnicity and by gender (see boxes at right and below). County-level data are provided see map at right, and attrition rates. In addition, trend data by county is provided via IDRA’s web site at www.idra.org. For the first time, IDRA is including online historical county-level numbers of students lost to attrition. See statewide historical numbers. General conclusions from this year’s study follow.

Latest Study Results altalt

Seven of every 20 students (35 percent) from the freshman class of 2002-03 left school prior to graduating with a high school diploma.

The class of 2006 began with 363,665 students. Of those students, 137,162 were lost from public school enrollment between the 2002-03 and 2005-06 school years. (See enrollment table.) Numerically, 137,162 students were lost from public high school enrollment in 2005-06 compared to 86,276 lost in 1985-86.

The overall attrition rate has increased by 6 percent from 1985-86 to 2005-06.

The percentage of students who left high school prior to graduation was 33 percent in 1985-86 compared to 35 percent now. Over the past two decades, attrition rates have fluctuated between a low of 31 percent in 1988-89, 1989-90 and 1990-91 to a high of 43 percent in 1996-97.

The overall attrition rate was less than 40 percent in 2005-06 for the fifth time in 10 years.

Between 1994-95 and 2000-01, the overall attrition rate ranged from a low of 40 percent to a high of 43 percent. In 2005-06, the overall attrition rate was 35 percent, representing the lowest rate since 1991-92.

Hispanic students and Black students historically have had much higher attrition rates than White students.

From 1985-86 to 2005-06, attrition rates of Hispanic students increased by 4 percent (from 45 percent to 47 percent). During this same period, the attrition rates of Black students increased by 18 percent (from 34 percent to 40 percent). Attrition rates of White students declined by 22 percent (from 27 percent to 21 percent). Hispanic students have higher attrition rates than either White students or Black students.

From 1985-86 to 2005-06, Native American students, Asian/Pacific Islander students and White students saw a decline in their attrition rates. Native American students had a decline of 13 percent in their attrition rates (from 45 percent to 39 percent), and Asian/Pacific Islander students had a decline of 48 percent (from 33 percent to 17 percent).

The gaps between the attrition rates of White students and the rates of Black students and Hispanic students are increasing.

The gap between the attrition rates of White students and Black students has increased from 7 percentage points in 1985-86 to 19 percentage points in 2005-06. Similarly, during this time period, the gap between the attrition rates of White students and Hispanic students have increased from 18 percentage points in 1985-86 to 26 percentage points in 2005-06. The gap between the attrition rates of White students and Native American students has remained constant at 18 percentage points in both 1985-86 and 2005-06.

Asian/Pacific Islander students exhibited the greatest positive trend in the reduction of the gap in attrition rates compared to White students. In fact, rates for Asian/Pacific Islander students were 6 percentage points higher than those of White students but now are 4 percentage points lower than those of White students.

Historically, the attrition rates of Hispanic students and Black students have been higher than the overall attrition rates.

For the period of 1985-86 to 2005-06, students from racial-ethnic minority groups account for more than two-thirds (69.3 percent) of the estimated 2.5 million students lost from public high school enrollment.

Hispanic students account for 50.4 percent of the students lost to attrition. Black students account for 17.4 percent of all students lost from enrollment due to attrition over the years. White students account for 30.7 percent of students lost from high school enrollment over time. Attrition rates for White students and Asian/Pacific Islander students have been typically lower than the overall attrition rates.

The attrition rates of males have been higher than those of females.

Between 1985-86 and 2005-06, attrition rates for males have increased by 9 percent (from 35 percent to 38 percent). Attrition rates for females declined by 3 percent from 32 percent in 1985-86 to 31 percent in 2005-06. Longitudinally, males have accounted for 56.6 percent of students lost from school enrollment, while females have accounted for 43.4 percent.

Over a 21-year period, the estimated cost of weak school holding power is $730.1 billion.

Between the 1985-86 and 2005-06 school years, more than 2.5 million students have been lost from public school enrollment, costing the state of Texas about $730.1 billion in forgone income, lost tax revenues, and increased job training, welfare, unemployment and criminal justice costs.


Though the overall attrition rate has remained under 40 percent over the last five years, improving school holding power in Texas schools is still an imperative. Texas public schools are failing to graduate seven out of every 20 students. Long-standing goals of graduating 90 percent or more of all students are yet to be achieved in our nation and in Texas amidst growing scrutiny and attention about the quality of education in our schools.

School holding power is an important indicator of a school’s success and the quality of its educational services to students. In order to strengthen our public schools and to improve their outcomes for students, communities and schools must work together in creating and implementing a framework for success.

In her “Quality Schools Action Framework,” Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, IDRA’s executive director, shows how communities and schools can work together to strengthen public schools to improve holding power through the following six areas: fair funding, governance efficacy, parent and community engagement, student engagement, teaching quality, and curriculum quality and access (2005). Each of these areas is defined below.

  • Fair Funding – Availability of funds in a school district to support a quality educational program for all students.
  • Governance Efficacy – The capacity of administrative and supervisory personnel to deliver quality educational services to all students, along with the policymaking and pro-active support of a school board to hold on to every student.
  • Parent and Community Engagement – Creating partnerships based on respect and a shared goal of academic success and integrating parents and community members into the decision-making processes of the school.
  • Student Engagement – School environment and activities that value students and incorporate them into the learning process and other social activities within the school with academic achievement as a result.
  • Teaching Quality – The preparation of teachers and the placement of teachers in their fields of study. Teaching is informed by continual professional development. Also the practices that teachers use in the classroom to deliver comprehensible instruction that prepares all students to meet academic goals and ensures that no child is left behind or drops out of school.
  • Curriculum Quality and Access – The educational programs of study, materials and other learning resources, such as technology, and their accessibility to all students. Also relates to assessment and accountability – the school practices related to fair and unbiased assessment of students and degree that schools take responsibility for the academic success of all students.

Improved school holding power strengthens schools and their outcomes for students. Working together, all stakeholders – schools, parents, students, educators, policymakers, researchers – can make a difference in strengthening school holding power.

Longitudinal Attrition Rates in Texas Public High Schools, 1985-86 to 2005-06

Group 1985-86 1986-87 1987-88 1988-89 1989-90 1990-91 1991-92 1992-93 1993-94 1994-95 1995-96 1996-97 1997-98 1998-99 1999-00 2000-01 2001-02 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06 Percent Change* from 1985-86 to 2005-06
Native American 45 39 37 47 39 39 40 39 38 42 44 43 42 25 43 42 29 39 42 40 39 -13%
Asian/Pacific Islander 33 30 28 23 22 23 21 21 21 18 18 20 21 19 20 20 14 17 16 17 17 -48%
Black 34 38 39 37 38 39 39 43 47 50 51 51 49 48 47 46 46 45 44 43 40 18%
White 27 26 24 20 19 22 22 25 28 30 31 32 31 31 28 27 26 24 22 22 21 -22%
Hispanic 45 46 49 48 48 48 48 49 50 51 53 54 53 53 52 52 51 50 49 48 47 4%
Male 35 35 35 34 34 34 37 39 41 43 45 46 45 45 44 43 43 41 40 39 38 9%
Female 32 32 31 29 29 29 30 33 36 37 39 40 38 38 36 36 35 34 33 32 31 -3%
Total 33 34 33 31 31 31 34 36 39 40 42 43 42 42 40 40 39 38 36 36 35 6%


Johnson, R.L. “Little Improvement in Texas School Holding Power: Texas Public School Attrition Study, 2004-05,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2005).

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework: Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Roy L. Johnson, M.S., is director of the IDRA Evaluation Research Division. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2006 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.]