Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Study: Texas schools more likely to lose track of African American students

African American students represent nearly a quarter of students who have fallen through the cracks.

By Molly Bloom
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The annual dropout rates for African American students in Texas, already higher than dropout rates for white and Hispanic students, might be even higher than previously reported, according to a Texas Education Agency report released last week.

As part of the state's effort to reduce the dropout rate, districts must account for each student in seventh through 12th grade who does not return to school in the district the next fall — whether the student has graduated, moved to a different district, enrolled in private school, left the district for other reasons or dropped out.

Districts can be sanctioned under the state's accountability system if more than 5 percent of their students, or more than 200, are unaccounted for.

The report includes what is essentially an audit of whether districts have actually tracked students, correctly entered their names and other identifying information, and indicated a reason for their departure in reports to the state.

The report shows that school districts, particularly charter schools, are more likely to lose track of African American students, relative to the proportion of African American students statewide, than students of any other racial group. State officials say they can't explain the trend.

African American students make up about 15 percent of Texas students but are a quarter of all unaccounted-for students. Overall, less than 1 percent of the state's more than 2 million seventh- through 12th-graders are unaccounted for in dropout reporting, down slightly from last year.

If the unaccounted-for African American students were counted as dropouts, the African American dropout rate would rise from about 4.1 percent to 5 percent.

Two-thirds of Texas' 49 districts with unacceptably high numbers of unaccounted-for students under state standards are charter school operators.

For example, the state says that KIPP Austin College Prep, a charter school that had about 300 students in grades five through eight in the 2006-07 school year, didn't report the status of 20 of its 171 seventh- and eighth-graders in 2007-08, a rate of almost 12 percent.

KIPP Austin College Prep Director Jill Kolasinski said the school will find out the names and ethnicities of unaccounted-for students later this year. About 86 percent of KIPP Austin's students are Hispanic; about 13 percent are African American, and about 1 percent are white.

Last year, the school also had a relatively high number of unaccounted-for students: 15. Of those students, two went to public schools, and data entry errors — such as would be caused by students using a different first name — caused them to be listed as unaccounted-for, Kolasinski said. The other 13 students enrolled in private schools in the fall but didn't tell KIPP which ones before the school had to submit data to the state in the summer.

Kolasinski said KIPP Austin plans to ensure that students are identified and tracked correctly this year.

"We know where these kids are; just somewhere along the way, the data got inputted incorrectly on somebody's end," she said.

The Austin school district in the 2006-07 school year failed to report the status of 74 of its approximately 34,500 students in seventh to 12th grades, a rate of less than 1 percent, which is on par with other large urban districts including those in Dallas, Fort Worth and Houston.

Several urban districts had unacceptably high numbers of unaccounted-for students, according to the state education agency, including Irving, near Dallas; North Forest in Houston; Ysleta in El Paso; and El Paso, none of which could tell the state what happened to more than 200 students who were no longer enrolled.

The 2006-07 statewide dropout rate for African American students — the percentage of students who should be enrolled but aren't, not including those who were unaccounted-for — was 4.1 percent, slightly higher than that of Hispanic students, 3.7 percent, and more than three times as high as that of white students, 1.3 percent.

The statewide gap between tracking African American students and students of other races has existed since the state began reporting the data by race and ethnicity 10 years ago.

Linda Roska, director of the Texas Education Agency's division of accountability research and a co-author of the report, said she couldn't say why the gap exists.

"At the state level, all we see are the numbers," she said.

Nancy Smith, deputy director of the Data Quality Campaign, a national effort to improve education data collection and use, said it was not surprising that some charter schools didn't meet state data quality standards. But the gap in Texas between the percentage of unaccounted-for African American students and the percentage of other unaccounted-for students is surprising, she said.

"Theoretically, if there was a problem with tracking students, it should hit all students the same," Smith said. "It should be a systemic issue, not a racial or ethnic issue."

Southern Regional Education Board spokesman Alan Richard said Texas' methods of tracking students and dropout rates are among the best in the region. Texas is one of a handful of states that track unaccounted-for students by district. But, Richard said, "It's difficult to get a handle on the problem without knowing the extent of it."

"And no matter how you count them, graduation rates are way too low," he said.

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