The dropout problem represents among the leading challenges for policy makers, schools and business leaders across Texas. A consensus of demographers predicts the problem could grow far worse as the state’s public school population swells with immigrants and the poor.
The U.S. Department of Education puts the Texas graduation rate at 71.9 percent — ranking the state 36th nationally. That would put the dropout population for each year’s graduating class at roughly 130,000 — or about the size of McAllen. Another estimate, using a formula called the Cumulative Promotion Index, indicates only 64.5 percent graduate in four years.
Under state and federal accountability systems, all schools get punished statistically for every student who drops out — multiple times.
“You get dinged every time they drop out — and you don’t get extra credit for getting them back,” said state Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston. “So it’s a lose-lose.”
State officials believe many school principals, whether overtly or covertly, have found ways to reject likely dropouts who wanted to return to school, so they could avoid getting marked down in federal accountability metrics when those students dropped out or posted low test scores.
Measuring dropout rate
Despite years of research, the true picture of dropout and graduation rates remains elusive, even the subject of cross words between researchers. The consensus: Far too many Texas public school students, particularly those from poor and minority families, don’t cross the high-school finish line.
All methods of quantifying the dropout rate have problems. Students and families don't always tell schools what happens after they leave a school, and researchers have legitimate disagreement over methodology. See the Texas Tribune overview of calculating dropout rates.
A 2009 study from the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University went beyond figuring dropout rates to quantifying the debilitating consequences, both for individuals and the Texas economy.
The small picture: A high school dropout will likely make poverty-level wages of about $14,500 yearly — about $7,000 less than a graduate with no college, a gap likely to remain or widen over time.
The big picture: dropouts subtracted between $5 and $9 billion annually from the gross state product of about $1.2 trillion, according to the study, which examined probabilities of employment, wages and government aid received, calculating the economic chasm between those who graduate and those who don’t.
Texas public school districts have dropout recovery efforts, but they tend to be small programs rather than entire alternative schools. Public schools under an alternative accountability system tend to focus on prevention rather than recovery, which specifically seeks students who have already dropped out.