Sunday, September 14, 2008

Texas schools scrambling to get dropouts back in class

Good point mentioned by Dr. Rumburger: "These are great gestures, but they won't have any impact if there's not something in schools to keep kids there," he said. "It's a long-term process."


By LAURIE FOX / The Dallas Morning News
September 5, 2008

This fall, a political spotlight and a sense of urgency hangs over the yearly quest to get potential dropouts back to class.

From principals to superintendents to mayors in the state's largest cities, the heat is on to get these students in school quickly.

Two changes are bringing extra attention to the more than 50,000 students lost from Texas schools each of the last few years.

State officials have said that failing to meet the federal dropout standard could for the first time count against campuses in their ratings.

For the first time, Texas schools have until Sept. 26 to corral wayward students before they must be considered dropouts. They had until mid-January in the past. This is a challenge in a district like Dallas ISD, which has historically had thousands of kids not return until several weeks into the school year.

"This is a very critical period for us," said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa. "It's a very important year. If we don't do this now, if we don't have the completion rates we need, these schools will be unacceptable."

The changes are part of the state's ongoing effort to come in line with the federal dropout standards developed by the National Center for Education Statistics. Texas began using these standards two years ago, but had not yet fully factored the graduation numbers into school ratings.

On Saturday, Dr. Hinojosa, Mayor Tom Leppert, parents and other volunteers will make a public showing. They will knock on doors to reach families of potential dropouts and try to convince them to re-enroll.

Five other major cities – including Fort Worth and Houston – and more than a dozen Texas school districts will do the same.

Houston Mayor Bill White said he started the effort because he believes that knowing an adult cares enough to come to their door sometimes is enough to get students back in school.

"Every week that goes by makes it harder to get that student back up to grade level when they return," he said.

Last year, the Houston effort encouraged 60 students to return to class the day of the walk and by the end of September, 766 students who were contacted during the walk were back in school, organizers said.

Most recent state statistics show about 64 percent of the class of 2007 made it through Houston high schools. Dallas graduated 62.5 percent of that class.
Dropout statistics unreliable

For years, the state's dropout numbers and high school graduation rates were inconsistently calculated, according to the Texas education agency's own historical timeline.

Critics also say keeping accurate track of the number of dropouts has bedeviled Texas for years.

Part of the problem, they say, is that when a student stopped coming to school, for example, educators often assumed that the student moved or went to another school when in fact the student may have quit entirely and should have been counted as a dropout.

"The quality and accuracy of the data from Texas is a real problem," said Daria Hall, the assistant director for K-12 policy at the Education Trust in Washington. The group monitors achievement trends nationwide.

She said the state's 2006 completion and dropout report contained 1,300 students that were listed as data errors, those who were not figured at all.

TEA officials say they have adopted the standards of the National Center for Education Statistics within the last two years. Those standards require that school districts be more specific in documenting why students leave school.

The TEA now requires the schools to report any seventh- through 12th-graders who were enrolled at any time during the prior year, who did not show up the following year.

The standards also have more specific deadlines for when schools have to report data.

"We've given the districts as much transition time as we can," said TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe.

In August, state officials acknowledged that 95 districts and 142 campuses avoided lower accountability ratings because the state excused schools that failed to meet the dropout standards but still met test score requirements.

Commissioner Robert Scott said in August that the state would discontinue that practice, a move that could result in hundreds of schools being rated low-performing next year.

Mr. Scott plans to hold a state dropout summit Nov. 10 in Austin that will include state and city leaders, educators, businesses, non-profit groups and youth associations.
No easy fix

Marcia Niemann, who teaches English as a second language at Adamson High School in Dallas, said she supports the early push to find dropouts.

"I'm looking at my list of students who were here last year and who should be here this year and I don't know where all of them are," she said. "One moved, one returned to Mexico, another told me ‘Miss, I won't be back.' If we find them within the first few weeks and get them back, they can still catch up."

Maria Garcia, the parent liaison at Adamson, said she hustles all year, finding students at home, in the grocery store, wherever she can. She tells them why they need to be in school. Then she checks back again and again.

"I keep telling them ‘You still have a chance,'" she said. "They have different situations, like work or family obligations. But we have to stay with them."

Many times, she says she reminds parents that while the money that their children earn helps out, it can't replace education.

California researcher Russell Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies dropouts, praised local and state efforts to raise awareness.

But he cautioned that raising graduation rates is complicated and finding solutions is not easy.

"These are great gestures, but they won't have any impact if there's not something in schools to keep kids there," he said. "It's a long-term process."

What is a dropout?

Texas uses the National Center for Education Statistics dropout standard. Under this definition, a dropout is a student who is enrolled in public school in grades 7-12, who does not return to public school the following fall, is not expelled, and does not graduate, receive a General Educational Development (GED) certificate, continue school outside the public school system, begin college or die.

Recent changes

The Texas Education Agency has been phasing school districts into using the national definition for dropouts. The following changes were made during the last two years:
•A student who does not receive a GED certificate by Aug. 31 must be counted as a dropout.
•A student who leaves school without passing the exit-level TAKS must be counted as a dropout.

What’s new?

This fall, two more changes will take effect:
•Schools have until Sept. 26 instead of mid-January to get students back in school before they are counted as dropouts.
•TEA officials say they will discontinue the practice of excusing schools that haven’t met federal dropout standards as long as their TAKS passing rates were satisfactory. This could negatively affect a school’s accountability rating.

Source: Texas Education Agency

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