Sunday, March 20, 2005

State's dropout rate 'not accurate'

March 20, 2005

Forget the dropout rate. Education researchers have dubbed the exodus from public school ''the push-out rate.''

For more than 15 years, the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association has tracked statewide attrition rates. Originally commissioned by the Texas Department of Commerce, the IDRA conducted a study that looked at the number of dropouts and the economic cost to the state, Executive Director Maria Robledo Montecel said.

The result of the inaugural report, Montecel said, was the creation of a state law defining dropouts and counts being conducted.

According to an IRDA newsletter, the initial study found 86,000 students did not graduate in the 1986-87 school year. Although the Texas Education Agency counted for dropouts differently, the numbers were comparable to those produced by the IDRA, Montecel said.

That was then. Today's numbers, she said, show a slight of hand.

The IDRA reported a 40-percent attrition rate in 2000 while the TEA reported a dropout rate of 1 percent for the same year.

Why the discrepancy?

The number of TEA-approved ''leaver codes,'' or acceptable exits of students from public schools, has increased - from obtaining a General Equivalency Diploma to being incarcerated.

''As more leaver codes are added, the dropout number becomes lower and lower,'' Montecel said. ''The method that is being used allows for these more than 30 ways of exempting them from the count.

''As long as the dropout counts are not accurate and credible, then it's quite difficult to know whether what we're doing is helping or not.''

The way school districts calculate the dropout rate, as mandated by state law, masks the scope of the problem, Montecel said.

The San Angelo Independent School District reported a 1.3-percent dropout rate in 2000. Census data from 2000 showed 18.6 percent of San Angeloans age 18-24 had not obtained a high school diploma or equivalent.

Sue Vanhoozer, the district's executive director of east-side campuses, noted that the census counts everyone, whether educated in San Angelo or not.

The school district's report to the TEA in 2000 showed the four-year completion rate - including those who dropped out and took the GED - at 86 percent. Completion rates account for students who earn a high school diploma or an equivalent, namely a GED certificate.

''I feel like we're doing better,'' said Joanne Rice, assistant superintendent of educational support services. ''We're nowhere near where we need to be.''

Rice conceded some of the leaver codes - such as for incarceration - shouldn't be considered a ''positive exit.''

''I don't agree with all the leaver codes,'' Rice said. ''But that's something we have to report.''

Some of the identified 30 codes include withdrawing to join the military or pursue a job, to marry or because of pregnancy. Of the 30 leaver codes districts use to identify why a student leaves school, 20 are not included in calculating the dropout rate for accountability purposes, according to the TEA Web site.

With a person's earning power related to education level, Montecel said, it is high time schools be held accountable for the number of students who graduate. Children, she said, count.

''There are still too many children that are thought to be expendable in school,'' Montecel said.

Copyright 2005, San Angelo Standard-Times. All Rights Reserved.

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