“Texas School Dropout Counting and Reporting – A Need for Credibility”

Testimony by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.
Executive Director of the Intercultural Development Research Association
Presented to the Texas State Board of Education, September 2000

In 1986, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) conducted Texas’ first comprehensive statewide study of high school dropouts. Using a high school attrition formula, IDRA found that 86,000 students had not graduated from Texas high schools that year, costing the state $1.7 billion in foregone income, lost tax revenues, and increased job training, welfare, unemployment and criminal justice costs.

By 1998, 12 years later, the estimated cumulative number of Texas high school dropouts had grown to 1.2 million students – with an estimated net loss in revenues and related costs to the state of $319 billion.

The latest IDRA attrition study completed in September of 2000 reflects that 146,714 more pupils were lost to attrition in 1999-00. The latest data indicate that the state experienced a 40 percent overall attrition rate for the class of 2000. Following a 14-year trend, Hispanic students reflected the highest attrition rate at 52 percent, followed by African American students at 47 percent and Native American students at 43 percent. White students reflected an attrition rate of 28 percent. IDRA is the only organization to annually compute attrition rates and is the only state level group that does so using consistent definitions and calculation methods.

In the mid 1980s, IDRA and official Texas Education Agency (TEA) estimates of the number and percentage of dropouts were very similar. Unfortunately, over the years the state has pursued a course of trying to define away the dropout numbers – rather than actually decreasing the numbers of dropouts. As the agency’s dropout estimates have declined over the last decade, so has the credibility of its dropout reporting. Few in or outside of Texas believe that the actual Texas dropout rate is anywhere near the 1.6 percent rate reported by TEA in its latest dropout estimates. IDRA and many critics of the existing state dropout reporting process contend that it is time for a major re-structuring of the state dropout reporting system. Despite the latest claims that the emerging new “school leaver” student accounting system will address these problems, this new system as currently proposed will only serve to compound rather than resolve the state’s dropout credibility problems.

What is Needed
In order to make the state dropout counting and reporting system credible, it must be made simple and clear. Specifically IDRA recommends the following.

Recommendation 1: The state should maintain the goal as stated in the Texas Education Code: “Through enhanced dropout prevention efforts, all students will remain in school until they obtain a high school diploma” (TEC Section 4.001).

Rationale: The goal of the state of Texas is simply and clearly that all students obtain a high school diploma. In Texas, all must mean all.

Recommendation 2: The state dropout definition should be amended and simplified by defining a dropout as a student whose re-enrollment or graduation from a high school (diploma granting school) has not been verified.

Rationale: Much of the current confusion about actual dropout rates is created by the state’s complex process for counting and reporting dropouts. The new school leaver data, with 37 student subcategories, has actually served to further complicate and muddle the process. A streamlined procedure is needed that informs us whether a student who was formerly enrolled in a Texas school has actually re-enrolled, has graduated, has dropped out, or whose status is in reality unknown due to a lack of verifiable information on actual re-enrollment. Current state reports indicate that the group of “unknown status students” account for over one third of those reported as non-dropouts. Emerging data however, suggests that many of those same students actually never re-enroll in any school. In response to a request for verification of the re-enrollment of approximately 120,000 students whom the school leaver system identified as purportedly “re-enrolled in another Texas public school,” TEA was unable to account for more than 33,000 of those pupils. In fact, this number of students who disappeared from Texas schools is actually greater than the 26,000 dropouts “officially” reported by the agency in that year. It is this type of discrepancy that weakens the credibility of the Texas dropout reporting system as well as its highly touted school accountability system because the latter incorporates these highly suspect dropout rates into the state’s current accountability and school rating system.

Recommendation 3: Modify the state dropout reporting system to include fewer major categories, specifically the numbers of (a) students actually enrolled in a specified graduating class; (b) students in that class who are still enrolled in any public or private high school (diploma granting institution) or who are verified as home schooled; (c) students known to have dropped out; (d) students who received a GED; and (e) students who completed all requirements but were denied a diploma for not passing the exit level Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

Rationale: Further confusion and related credibility of the existing state dropout reporting system can be attributed to the complexity that has been built into it by the state agency. With 37 student leaver codes, separating the number of pupils who actually received a regular high school diploma from the myriad of other reporting categories has rendered the new school leaver reporting system even less useful than the one it is replacing. The cumbersome 37 school leaver codes can be combined into several major categories that would provide a much clearer picture of students’ status and enable anyone to calculate rates using these numbers. These new categories would include: (a) students actually enrolled in a specified graduating class; (b) students in that class who are still enrolled in any public or private high school (diploma granting institution) or who are verified as home schooled; (c) students known to have dropped out (this could include a subcategory of the number of students whose re-enrollment or high school graduation cannot be verified); (d) students who received a GED; and (e) students who completed all requirements but were denied a diploma for not passing the exit level TAAS.

Much of the insistence to modifying dropout reporting procedures lies in the fact that schools and the state agency oppose reporting – as dropouts – students who have enrolled or indicated an intent to enroll in another public or private school but for whom no actual verification of enrollment is available. The creation of the “unknown” category allows for this distinction – without automatically assuming that these students actually re-enrolled at a subsequent school. Similarly, by accounting for GEDs in a separate category, the public can distinguish those students who get a regular high school diploma from those who completed a GED.

A final category would involve those students who have completed all requirements – but who failed to pass the exit level TAAS. Such students are not reported either as dropouts or high school graduates in the current reporting system. Like for GED recipients, the new system would account for these students, further allowing for calculating dropout and/or completion rates by combining or disaggregating the various subcategories.

Recommendation 4: 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.

Rationale: There is currently no local oversight committee to monitor the local dropout reporting or intervention. Schools and communities must be directly involved in addressing the issue.

The need to significantly change the Texas dropout reporting system is reflected in the fact that the U.S. Department of Education, in reporting state level school statistics, decided to use its own alternative methods for estimating the Texas dropout rate, due in large measure to concerns with Texas’ existing dropout reporting system. Other institutions have raised similar concerns. A study reported in Postsecondary Education Opportunity found the percent change in public high school graduation rates in Texas between 1983 and 1998 to be -5 percent. Texas ranked 40th nationally with less than one-third of ninth graders graduating from high school.

While IDRA will continue to compile attrition data for the state, it is critical that the state update and streamline its own dropout reporting process. Whether referred to as “leavers” or “dropouts,” far too many Texas students are leaving our schools without ever earning their high school diplomas. We can continue to distort these realities by resorting to tricks like cumbersome definitions and unwieldy reporting and counting systems, or we can simplify the process so that it is both understandable and believable. Our children and our public need and deserve more of both, for we cannot fix what we do not understand, and we cannot act on what we do not believe.

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 more than 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.