Study: 58.5 percent of area freshmen finish high school
By MARY FLOOD | Houston Chronicle
May 23, 2009
As thousands of Houston-area high school seniors prepare to accept their diplomas in the coming weeks, a study released Friday shows that only 58.5 percent of the region’s freshmen make it to graduation day.
Children at Risk, a Houston-based advocacy group, commissioned the Texas Education Agency to conduct study of six-year graduation rates for the region’s 130 high schools. They learned that 53 percent of the students who begin as ninth-graders in the Houston Independent School District had not graduated from any Texas high school in six years. The combined graduation rate for the entire region’s high schools is 58.5 percent.
The 12 noncharter high schools with the worst graduation rates, the study concluded, are all Houston ISD campuses.
“There is a real crisis, a crisis of graduation,” Children at Risk president and CEO Robert Sanborn said, pointing out the link between poverty and education levels. “We really don’t think the TEA and the school districts are being honest with the public.”
Sanborn said HISD estimates it graduates as many as 77 percent of its students within four years. That number is based on faulty data that doesn’t count as dropouts students who claim they’re going to be home schooled, attend private school or move out of state or country, he said.
Sanborn said the first step in fixing high schools is admitting the severity of the problem. He called for the Legislature, the TEA and individual school districts to become more transparent and use the graduation rate calculation formula Children at Risk used in this study.
Several area school districts posted graduation rates that were worse than Houston’s, including North Forest (45.7 percent), Dickinson (46.4 percent), Channelview (48.5 percent), and La Marque (51.8 percent).
Though alarming, Sanborn said he wants schools to keep track the way his group did so people are spurred to take action to better the schools through longer school days, extended school years, smaller learning communities and other methods he said are proven to help students learn and stay in school.
Karen Garza, HISD’s chief academic officer, said the district sees dropouts as an important problem that they are working to address. She suggested the Children at Risk numbers fail to consider how mobile the population of this urban school district is by excluding students who may start here but graduated in Oklahoma or Mexico or anywhere outside of Texas.
“We acknowledge this is a major issue. We’ve got to get better at keeping kids in school,” Garza said. “We want solutions. We offer more and more options, things like flexible hours and on-line courses.”
But, Garza said, HISD uses the formula prescribed by the TEA, and she doesn’t see the Children at Risk calculation as being any more reliable.
Sanborn said they followed the suggestions of former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ administration. The group had the TEA analyze the 2001-2002 class of freshmen and track them through six years and count them if they graduated from a high school anywhere in Texas. They were not counted as graduates if they went to private school, left the state or were home schooled.
Linda Roska of the TEA said her agency follows guidelines from the National Governors Association but might alter the math if the new federal administration adopts some of Spellings’ suggested changes. But Roska was unsure whether what Children at Risk did was what the federal government might want.
Sanborn acknowledged he doesn’t expect the state Legislature to address this statistical issue this session, which ends June 1.
Urban schools in the region graduated 55 percent of freshmen under the advocacy group’s method and suburban schools graduated 68.6 percent.
The highest local graduation rate in Sanborn’s study was at Friendswood ISD with 78.4 percent and the lowest was North Forest ISD with 45.7 percent.
Friendswood reported a 94 percent four-year graduation rate to the state in 2007, the same year the Children at Risk study ended.
Among school districts with multiple high schools, Katy, Fort Bend and Cypress-Fairbanks posted the highest graduation rates.