Dropping out: The data

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 disagreements over methodology. Four common methods of tracking student retention from 9th through 12th grades are completion rates, graduation rates, attrition rates and the cumulative promotion index – which produce vastly different figures and serve different political agendas.

What the research says – and where it conflicts:

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Completion rate:

What it is:

The measure most often cited by the Texas Education Agency – and which has come under the most criticism for glossing over a serious dropout problem. Completion rates attempt to follow cohorts of students through high school, but unlike other measures, it counts students who don’t graduate in four years but continue in high school as “completers,” regardless of whether they ultimately graduate. The state releases two completion rates, one that counts as graduates students who leaves school and complete a GED program, and one that counts them as dropouts.

The numbers:

Completion rate including GED students: 89.5 percent

Completion rate excluding GED students: 88 percent

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Graduation rate:

What it is:

When the Texas Education Agency references the state’s "dropout rate," it's actually referring to the agency’s “longitudinal graduation rate.” This rate attempts to track a cohort of students individually from ninth grade to graduation. It attempts to exclude students who leave for a whole host of reasons, from getting incarcerated to leaving the state to enrolling in a private school. Figures published in October by the U.S. Department of Education, based on data submitted by Texas, show a lower graduation rate.

The numbers:


79.1 (2007-08)

U.S. Department of Education:

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71.9 (2006-07)

Rank nationally: 36th

Rank among the ten largest states, by population: 5th

Percentage graduating by ethnic group:


State: 71.8

Federal: 64.7


state: 70.8

federal: 63.1

Native American:

state: 81.7

federal: 85.4


state: 88.8

federal: 81.1


state: 91.2

federal: 99


Attrition rate:

What it is:

A rougher estimate, which ignores why students did not graduate and merely tracks the number of students who start ninth grade at a Texas public school but do not graduate from one four years later. Attrition rates can overestimate the dropout problem because they do not include students who leave a Texas public school but graduate elsewhere, or who graduate after four years. TEA’s attrition rate does not account for students who transfer into school after 9th grade; the Intercultural Development Research Association adjusts its rate to account for such school growth.

The numbers:


71.4 percent (estimated percent graduating)


67 percent


Cumulative promotion index:

What it is:

The Cumulative Promotion Index (CPI) is an estimate of the dropout rate, based on a snapshot of promotion data in all high school grades from one year. The index averages the retention rates between ninth and tenth; tenth and eleventh; eleventh and twelfth; and twelfth and graduation. 

The numbers:

TEA *:

64.5 (2007-08)

Texas Public Policy Foundation:

69.1 (2004-05)


* The Texas Tribune calculated the index using raw data from TEA, which does not produce a cumulative promotion index.

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