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Texas High Schools Graduating More of Their Students, but Why?

As the latest round of school finance litigation goes to trial this fall, it appears there is reason for optimism about the number of Texas students leaving high school with a diploma. But it's hard to know what's responsible for the success.

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When it comes to the number of students who graduate from its public high schools, Texas is not accustomed to being called a success.

The last time the Texas Supreme Court ruled on the state’s school finance system, in 2005, it warned of a “severe dropout problem,” calling the lagging graduation rates of blacks and Hispanics in the state “especially troublesome.”

Yet even as the latest round of school finance litigation goes to trial this fall, it appears there is reason for optimism about the number of students leaving high school with a diploma. Many Texas school districts, including the state’s two largest, are reporting their third or fourth straight year of rising graduation rates — and the statewide average has climbed steadily since 2007, according to data kept by the Texas Education Agency.

One example: Dallas Independent School District, the state’s second largest, has seen its graduation rates increase 14 percentage points during that time, according to the latest numbers released by district officials.

Policymakers and school leaders attribute the increases to a variety of programs on the state and district level aimed at keeping students in the classroom. But, beyond the anecdotal, very little evidence exists as to why or if these programs are the reason for the state’s success.

“Dropout prevention studies are hard, expensive and rare,” said Lori Taylor, an education professor at Texas A&M University. “And just because there is no proof doesn’t mean school districts are wrong in believing their intervention is working. But it also doesn’t mean that we should instantly go out and advise everyone to do what they just did.”

Part of the issue, Taylor said, is that it is tough to find a control group. When schools decide to carry out a program, they either do it across the whole student body or target a certain population. If it is the latter, they are naturally reluctant to deny access to students who could benefit from their services.

It is also difficult to measure the sway of external factors, like the poor economy, which tends to keep students in school because they feel the pull of the job market less, and informed, motivated parents who are more likely to encourage their children to enroll in voluntary dropout prevention programs.

Shifting state accountability requirements also affect graduation rates, as evidenced by the state’s transition to a more rigorous standardized testing regime in 2003. The next year, graduation rates began a three-year decline as schools adjusted to the new system.

The difficulty of measuring the success of dropout prevention programs is not unique to Texas. “It’s hard to put a stamp on any particular explanation” of rising graduation rates, said Christopher Swanson, the vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, a research organization that has studied graduation rates nationwide.

With dozens of policies in place at the same time at the state and district levels, broader economic and social trends, and the quality of application all factoring into a program’s success, he said, it is a challenge for researchers to untangle the causes and effects of individual practices.

Accurate graduation rates can also be elusive. A high dropout rate holds political ramifications for everyone involved in tracking student achievement — from principals and school leaders to lawmakers and the governor — and the intricacy of calculations and definitional loopholes can invite number fudging. In Texas, the battle over graduation rate calculus reached its height in 2006, after research from Harvard University, the University of Texas at Austin and Rice University showed that the state was inflating its graduation numbers by excluding students who left school for several reasons, including to take the GED.

Since then, the state has used the federal definition from the National Center for Education Statistics to measure dropout rates, but that has not prevented critics from saying school districts are trying to mask the true numbers.

According to 2010 statistics form the state’s education agency, which still tend toward a brighter outlook than national measures, about 34,907 students dropped out of school. That will most likely translate to a lifetime of decreased economic opportunity — not to mention the $9.6 billion a 2009 Texas A&M study estimated that one year’s class of dropouts costs the state over their lifetimes in lost wages, diminished sales tax revenue and welfare taxes, even with the money saved in the short term when they leave the public school system.

The statewide gains in graduation rates play out across all ethnic groups — Hispanic and black populations each beat the statewide average increase by about 2 percentage points. Statewide increases also occur in formulas used to track graduation nationally. In 2009, the latest year graduation statistics are available in the federal data used by the Cumulative Promotion Index — which put the state’s graduation rate at 72 percent instead of the TEA’s 8o percent that year —  Texas still lags behind the national average by about 2 percent. But its rate has increased more rapidly than average, up by 11 percentage points since 1999 compared with 7 percentage points nationally.

The improvement, though less rosy than the state data, also turns up in numbers collected by the nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association, which has tracked high school attrition rates in the state using the same methodology since 1986. The attrition rate tracks how many students left school each year, which proponents say is a more accurate measure of schools’ success at graduating students than the dropout rate. The state’s attrition rate has dropped steadily since 2000, but is still around 27 percent, which the IDRA says means that one in four Texas students fails to graduate from high school.

As districts release their 2011 rates, the positive trend appears to be continuing. Austin Independent School District, the state’s fifth-largest, reports that its numbers have risen by 6 percentage points since 2008. And Houston ISD and Dallas ISD, which have the highest enrollments in the state, say they have improved their rates by 12 and 14 percentage points, respectively, since 2007.

Meria Carstarphen, the Austin ISD superintendent, said she could not name one program as the “silver bullet” for tackling the dropout problem. Over the past several years, she said, the district has instituted a variety of programs aimed at targeting different populations at risk for leaving school, offering classes at alternative hours and helping students catch up on credits. It has also worked within its more traditional student support system, training counselors to better identify potential dropouts sooner.

But the improvements in those districts are occurring as the state is once again transitioning to a new accountability system — and cutting $5.4 billion in financing for state schools. The state is also in the midst of a huge demographic shift, with an increasing population of low-income and minority students.

The demographic shift has played out on a small scale in Duncanville ISD, a district of about 13,000 students on the outskirts of Dallas — and one that has not seen the same success with dropout problems as others in the state. There, in the last eight years, the number of economically disadvantaged students has jumped to 75 percent from 49 percent. Its Hispanic population has risen to 48 percent from 17 percent. Its graduation rates have not risen at the same pace as the statewide figures. Bucking the statewide trend, they declined from 2006 to 2009.

This comes as the district has instituted dropout prevention programs aimed at Hispanic males — which its data has shown to be more likely to leave school — and at credit recovery for students who have fallen behind. It has also seen anecdotal success with policies focused on making school a more pleasant place to be for students, like a peer mediation program, which Tammy Kuykendall, a district spokeswoman, credited with improving attendance rates.

But like others across the state, the district is aware of the looming transition to new accountability system, which links graduation requirements to state standardized exams.

“That’s very massive, and we are not sure how we are going to effectively track, manage and guide students appropriately,” she said. “Our high school serves 3,700 to 3,800 students. Just making sure we are reaching and meeting all of their needs is going to be a challenge.”

Other stories in our Beyond the Data series have looked at whether Texas students are prepared for college, how much schools are spending per student, and trends in school district staffing

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