Texas inflates graduation rates, researchers say
12:02 AM CDT on Friday, October 6, 2006
HOUSTON – Texas grossly inflates its high school graduation numbers, masking critical dropout figures, according to studies to be presented Friday at a Rice University conference.
Academicians from institutions including Rice, Harvard, Stanford and Johns Hopkins, as well as other experts in the field, say their goal is to bring clarity to the problem, explain the implications for the state and nation and lay the groundwork for progress.
In a conference call to reporters on Wednesday, the conference speakers previewed the research and issues they planned to present.
"The graduation crisis is much more urgent than we might understand just based on what the TEA presents," said Chris Swanson, director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, referring to the Texas Education Agency. He notes that the Lone Star state isn't the only one that exaggerates its numbers.
His research, part of a four-year project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found Texas' graduation rate to be 66.8 percent, much lower than the 84.2 percent the state reports.
"We do not think our graduation rate is inflated," said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. She questions the researchers' methodology.
Swanson's numbers are almost identical to what other independent researchers have found using various methodologies, the speakers said. Swanson used enrollment-based estimates; others have looked at individual student records and unduplicated data from the state.
Further, Swanson said the inflation increases in the larger districts. Dallas has a 46 percent graduation rate, his study found, not the state's figure of 81 percent. The inflation was also more prominent when looking at minority and poor students.
Part of the disparity lies in the differing definitions for what a dropout is. The state figures mentioned, from the 2002-2003 school year, do not count the following as dropouts: students who have enrolled in a GED program, students who have passed coursework but not the required state test, students who transferred to another Texas public school but never showed up for class and students who are missing.
The state will begin including the first three of those categories in their calculations, starting this school year, but not because it found fault with its previous method, Ratcliffe said, but rather to align it with the definitions used by the federal No Child Left Behind law and National Center for Education Statistics.
Texas is one of the few states to have a system that tracks individual students, a resource many other states want to emulate.
"The lesson for Texas is that it doesn't matter how good the data collection is. If you're not reporting in an accurate, transparent way, you wind up with very misleading information," said Dan Losen, a senior education law and policy associate with Harvard's Civil Rights Project. "That misleading info means that educators and policy-makers and the general public are going to make bad decisions about education reform or at least not very effective ones. It's a real tragedy."