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Rising Graduation Rates Spark Renewed Doubts

Texas' headway with high school graduation rates hasn't been matched by similar success in measures that track students’ college and career readiness, prompting questions about what it takes to earn a high school diploma.

Students at Townview Center in South Dallas.

A decade ago, Texas was a poster-child for the ills that contributed to a national high school graduation crisis. As the state weathered scandals over the way some districts calculated graduation rates, it became identified in national reports as the epicenter for chronically underperforming schools known as “dropout factories.”

Now the percentage of Texas students earning their high school diplomas on time exceeds that of nearly every other state. A U.S. Department of Education report released in April showed Texas tied for second place — one spot higher than the previous year — with only Iowa reporting a higher rate for 2012.

In August, the Texas Education Agency announced another year of record-breaking high school graduation rates, which have been rising since 2007. It reported that 88 percent of public school students in the class of 2013 earned a diploma within four years. Many districts, including the state’s five largest, are reporting their fourth or fifth straight year of rising graduation rates.

Policy makers and school leaders have greeted the gains with cautious optimism, and have credited a number of programs at the state and local levels.

“With additional flexibility now provided to school districts, we should expect graduation numbers to remain strong with all students better prepared for life after high school in college, the workplace or military,” Michael Williams, Texas’ education commissioner, said in an August statement, referring to a new law that restructured the state’s high school curriculum requirements.

But the state’s headway with graduation rates has not been matched by similar success in measures that track students’ college and career readiness, prompting questions about what it takes to earn a high school diploma. A dropout prevention program in the Dallas Independent School District, where the graduation rate has risen 16 percentage points in the last five years, has been cited as a possible explanation for the disconnect.

“I’ve encountered too many of our students who are functionally illiterate,” said Mike Morath, a trustee of the district, the state’s second-largest. “If your standard for graduation is the standard needed for success in college after graduation, then the graduation rates should be nowhere near where there are. They should be much lower.”

In an Aug. 28 ruling that found the state’s school finance system violated the Texas Constitution, state district court Judge John Dietz of Austin said student performance on a “variety of metrics” indicated the state was “far from meeting its objectives” related to college and career readiness.

“An alarming percentage of Texas students graduate high school without the necessary knowledge and skills to perform well in college,” Dietz said in his decision, which the state intends to appeal.

Over the last decade, more students earning high school diplomas are moving on to higher education, but the rate of students leaving college without degrees has either flatlined or increased since 2009. At two-year institutions, one of every three students fails to return for a second year. Of students who attend four-year universities, about 30 percent stop before they complete their degrees, a rate that has remained consistent over the past decade.

Little research exists on the effectiveness of specific dropout prevention programs for high schools. That is partly because it is challenging to find a control group. When schools initiate a policy, they either do so across the whole student body or target a certain population. If it is the latter, they are reluctant to deny access to students who could benefit from the service.

Gauging the role of external factors is difficult as well. An economic downturn like the one the country saw in 2008 can have a positive impact on high school graduation rates, because a poor job market yields fewer employment opportunities that might entice students to leave school. Shifting state accountability requirements can have the opposite effect. After Texas last went to a more rigorous standardized testing regimen, in 2003, graduation rates began a three-year decline as schools adjusted.

What has happened in the Dallas district could provide one answer for the increase in graduation rates. A preliminary internal audit from the school district, obtained by The Dallas Morning News, showed that as many as “a quarter of the class of 2013” should not have earned diplomas, because of lacking documentation under so-called principal plans.

The policy, which allows principals to pass students who would have failed because of poor attendance if they made up their absences under predesigned plans, came from a state law that was passed in 2007. Spurred by a 2005 Texas Supreme Court ruling against the school finance system that warned of a “severe dropout problem,” calling the trailing graduation rates of blacks and Hispanics in the state “especially troublesome,” the Legislature passed a slate of reforms aimed at dropout prevention.

Morath said that there was “no question” the policy allowing students to make up attendance hours had bolstered his district’s graduation rate. But he said the issue did not raise concerns because the only students qualifying for the initiative were those who would have otherwise passed the courses except for poor attendance.

Jon Dahlander, a Dallas district spokesman, also said that the discrepancy was solely related to attendance, and that the district had already moved to retrain principals on the law’s requirements.

Another change, which came in 2006, may be playing a role in the state’s rising graduation rates. Texas began using the National Center for Education Statistics definition to measure dropouts instead of a state definition that allowed districts to avoid counting students who left school for a variety of reasons, including to take the test for a high school equivalency diploma. With increased pressure to curb dropouts, school districts then began to turn increasingly to “credit recovery” programs — self-paced makeup classes often administered online for students who failed the first time around — to bolster graduation rates. 

Such programs hold higher potential for abuse and are more deserving of scrutiny, Morath said.

Robert Sanborn, the president and chief executive of Children at Risk, a nonprofit advocacy organization that has studied graduation rates in the state, agreed. He said that with little state oversight to ensure that credit recovery courses are rigorous, schools can treat them as “an excuse to get students through.”

“The TEA is in a sense in collusion with school districts,” Sanborn said of the education agency. “They want to see those gradation rates be higher, and they aren’t going to do anything jeopardize those programs. I think it’s a matter again of this pressure to say you graduated as many kids as you can, and you find whatever loophole you can.”

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