By Adam Wren and Chris Neary
Robert Kimball could not believe his eyes.
The assistant principal at Sharpstown High School in Houston knew the graduation rate he was looking at was wildly inaccurate. Just 300 of the largely Hispanic 1,000 entering freshman class graduated, yet the school reported a 100 percent graduation rate for the class of 2002.
Kimball blew the whistle, which didn’t help his career, but raised awareness of false dropout figures not only in Texas but throughout the U.S. Despite reforms over the next few years, many education and policy experts say an undercount is built into the system.
“Texas has consistently tried to hide the dropout issue,” says Robert Sanborn, CEO of Child at Risk, a Houston-based policy and advocacy group.
Those who leave high school are called “leavers,” and administrators have a list of reasons to check why the leaver left. Two of the most common are “home-schooling” and “returned to home country.” Leavers are not considered dropouts.
Texas is among 20 states that use the National Governors Association approved formula for counting dropout rates. But states vary widely in the number of leaver codes they use, ranging from 3 to 65. Texas has 13.
The 9.4 dropout rate is “complete fiction. Everybody knows it’s fiction,” says Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Rice University Center for Education.
More than 90,000 students were counted as “leavers” in Texas in 2009, but not as dropouts. Nearly 21,000 of them were coded as withdrawing for home-schooling. The Texas dropout rate that year was 9.4 percent, significantly below the national rate of 25 percent (and 40 percent for blacks and Latinos).
The 9.4 rate is “complete fiction. Everybody knows it’s fiction,” says Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Rice University Center for Education. Leaver codes allow the state to disguise the scope of the problem, she says.
The rate of attrition, the raw numbers of students who enter high school but don’t graduate, is about 31 percent, says the Intercultural Development Research Assn. in San Antonio that has been studying dropout rates since 1968.
But Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, defends the system, saying the state’s data are more correct because the attrition rate is only “an estimate.” She blames some of the discrepancy on parents falsely reporting the reason their child was leaving, but said that happens less now.
Some, including one school board member, say administrators are under great pressure to keep the graduation rate high, for political reasons. The state evaluates schools in part on their district’s graduation rate.
“If we had a true accountability of leavers, without pressures of success, I think it would be easier to identify our exact dropout rate,” says Manuel Rodriguez, president of Texas’ Mexican-American School Board association and a Houston school board member.
“But because we have such pressures put to administrators and teachers, people find ways to bend the rules in order to show a dropout rate that isn’t as severe,” he says. Some inadvertently mark the wrong code, some purposely do so and others guess why the youth is leaving, he says.
Kimball, the whistleblower at Sharpstown, said many students had personally told him they were dropping out.