Guest Column: Dropout Rates Too Good to Be True?

If the new graduation numbers released by the U.S. Department of Education are correct — that 86 percent of Texas students graduated high school in four years in the 2010-2011 school year — we all certainly have something to celebrate. I’m not so sure the numbers are correct, however.

The problem with graduation rates is that they are very hard to calculate. While this figure shows a great deal of improvement, there are other studies that show limited improvement and a serious graduation problem. There is also anecdotal information from educators that the problem at individual schools and districts is far greater, approaching 50 percent or more of high school students dropping out before completing their education.

If you look at basic numbers, comparing the number of ninth graders to the number of graduating seniors, the completion rate is closer to 65 percent. I realize this method is far from perfect, but I think it gives you an idea of how bad the problem might be. While some students might legitimately move from one high school to another, or leave the state altogether, there are plenty of new students moving into these schools every year as well, adding validity to this number.

That number is not far off from the one used by Dr. Michael Belfield from Columbia University during his testimony on November 14 in the Texas school finance trial on behalf of MALDEF. Belfield testified that his research places the graduation rate in Texas at 67 percent, below the national average.

In the annual Diploma Counts report from Education Week, the graduation rate was measured at 71.5 percent. Those numbers come from 2009, meaning they are older than the ones used by the U.S. Department of Education, but it is doubtful that we went from just under 72 percent to 86 percent in that short amount of time.

Don’t get me wrong — there is good news in the Diploma Counts report too, but also some disturbing numbers. For example, the graduation rate for Hispanics is only 64.4 percent.

The good news in the Diploma Counts report is that Texas has shown steady improvement over the years, and shows no signs of backing away from that improvement. It shows that the state continues to move in the right direction, but it isn’t there yet. While I seriously doubt that our graduation rate is truly at 86 percent, we are at least not slipping in any graduation measure.

I find it curious how Texas could rank 43 out of 50 states in graduation rates in 2010, a number that was even confirmed as true by Politifact Texas, and now, all of a sudden, rank third. That is astonishing movement in the last two years, and it sounds too good to be true. The fact is, it probably is too good to be true.

We should be careful about doing a disservice to policy makers in Texas when the reality of the dropout crisis is shielded by what appear to be outlying numbers. In order to focus appropriate attention on this issue, a more honest reporting of the numbers would be helpful. Educators must not be allowed to take their eye off of the problem. A falsely optimistic report shouldn’t stop educators from working towards programs that graduate kids with diplomas that mean something.

There is another major problem as well. Whether the graduation rate is 65, 67, 71, or even 86 percent, very few of our students are graduating ready for careers or college. It doesn’t do the state’s employers much good if 100 percent of students graduate if those diplomas don’t mean anything.

I applaud the state for moving in the right direction, but strongly encourage our leaders in education policy to not let up on the effort to improve our public schools and to ensure that these students have a diploma that truly means they are ready for the next step in their education or career.

Bill Hammond is president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business.