Choose Your Dropout Rate

A big problem, or just a little problem? Either way, it's problematic.

Travis Co. high schools have an attrition rate of 37%, according to a new report by the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association. In other words, it's as if only 63 students out of a freshman class of 100 made it through their senior year to graduation day. In yet other words, central Texas has a mad dropout problem.

That is, if the IDRA is correct in its calculations. The Texas Education Agency tells another story, and they back that story up with their own numbers. Lots of 'em. The TEA reports that AISD had a dropout rate of 1.1%, a four-year noncompletion rate of 8.9%, and a graduation rate of 75.7% for the 2003-03 school year, the most recent for which statistics are available. The difference between the "dropout rate" and the "four-year-noncompletion" rate is that the former looks at grades 7-12, while the latter looks at just high school. And, as sharp-eyed readers may have ascertained, the 8.9% noncompletion rate, plus the 75.7% graduation, does not exactly add up to 100% of AISD's 78,000 students.

Because TEA reports its data by school district and IDRA reports by county, the two counts are impossible to directly compare. AISD is but one of seven districts in Travis Co. – excluding charter schools – the others being Pflugerville, Eanes, Manor, Del Valle, Lago Vista, and Lake Travis. Still, the difference between 37% and 8.9% is dramatic enough to suggest that high school completion data is being considered under two very different sets of rules.

Critics see several problems with the TEA system. First, they say that using grades 7-12 to come up with its dropout rate artificially lowers the figure and enables those who want to minimize the problem to do so. But another question is what really happens to the roughly 15% of students (by the TEA's count) who don't graduate on time but who aren't classified as dropouts. The TEA says they either receive their GED (3.3%) or they "continued high school" (12.1%), either as a fifth-year senior or by withdrawing to go to a private, charter, or other public school.

But Roy Johnson, director of evaluation research for IDRA, says that's simply not the case. Instead, he charges, the TEA uses a complicated coding system to make dropouts look like transfers in the data. "If these students were really withdrawing to go to other schools, you'd see an increase in the number of official transfers," he said.

But DeEtta Culbertson of the TEA said it's the IDRA that has the faulty data. "We stand by our state report," she said. She suggested that IDRA look at charter-school enrollment – which their report does not include – because that's where many of the "continued high school students" went.

But no matter how you slice, pulverize, and reconstitute the data, it's clear that Texas public schools, and AISD, have a long way to go before they can claim they're graduating all their students.

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Public Schools, dropout, attrition, noncompletion, Intercultural Development Research Association, IDRA, Texas Education Agency, TEA

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