Critics Accuse Texas of Inflating Graduation Rates

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The high school graduation rate in the United States is at an all-time high, and there’s a surprising state at the top of the pack.

According to new federal data, 80 percent of American high schoolers earn a diploma. Texas is one of the exceptional performers; the state boasts a graduation rate in the upper 80s.

The fact that Texas is in that list is remarkable, given some of the unique challenges it faces in educating young people. More than half of the state’s students receive free or reduced-cost lunches, and there is a sizeable population of non-native English speakers.

So how are they doing it?

Hispanic students show gains

One of the drivers is the soaring Hispanic graduation rate. After years of flatlining, the number of Hispanic graduates began climbing in the mid-2000s. It’s risen 15 percent since 2006, three times the increase for white students.

A majority of students in Texas are Hispanic, with two-thirds likely to be Hispanic by 2050, according to the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas. So as Hispanic graduation rates rise, it makes sense that graduation rates in Texas rise, too.

But why are Hispanic and non-Hispanic graduation rates going up in the Lone Star state?

There’s no one silver bullet, according to education experts who have looked at the state. But Texas has taken a number of steps in recent years that, added up, have had a real impact.

According to Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department, Texas does “a real nose count.”

“You can’t address the problem until you define it,” she said. “You’ve got to know that John Smith is the kid at risk of dropping out, not just look at percentages.”

Targeting at-risk students

Districts in Texas have also launched dropout prevention programs that target at-risk kids. The programs include everything from extra tutoring to home visits over the summer with families. One reason, according to Ratcliffe, is that Texas, the birthplace of the controversial No Child Left Behind policy, “holds schools accountable so there’s a public spotlight on how they’re doing.”

A program called “early college high school” has been particularly effective at preventing dropouts and served as a model across Texas and around the country. The idea is to let at-risk kids take both college and high school courses simultaneously.

The idea was born in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, which runs along the Texas-Mexico border in one of the country’s most impoverished areas. Nearly 90 percent of the students are poor, virtually all are Hispanic, and more than 40 have limited English proficiency. Back in the mid-2000s, the graduation rate was around 62 percent. Now, with a thriving early college program, it’s close to 90 percent.

The state has also fostered other alternative high school models — ones that allow night classes, for instance — and closed “dropout factories.” The number of charter schools has increased, as well.

Jose Rodriguez, a regional director of education for the National Council of La Raza, said Texas has done a good job of providing information about graduation requirements to parents through bilingual town halls, mailers and home visits. Several state universities require teachers to be certified in teaching English language learners, he added, so the state fosters bilingual learning, more so than California, another heavily Hispanic state that has not performed as well.

It’s worth noting that these improvements have been implemented even as education spending has remained stagnant, with the state still in court over what districts have said is inadequate funding for schools.

Skewed numbers

But Rodriguez and several other people with knowledge of the state’s education system said that some of the uptick in graduation rates may actually come from the way Texas reports numbers to the government. In other words, the improvement might not really be as great as the state says it is.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been vocally critical of the state’s graduation measurements.

“What they’re doing that’s amazing when it comes to graduation rate is lying to the government,” he said.

There are a couple of ways for the state to calculate graduation rate. One, called the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR), lets states make adjustments for students who leave, through transferring out of state, homeschooling, passing away and some other scenarios.

The measurement is intended to let states get a more accurate count of where their students end up, but it also gives the state control over which “leaver” code they use and, depending on the code, they can let themselves off the hook for any follow up. If the state enters the homeschool code, for instance, the kid might actually not continue their education and really be a dropout, but they aren’t flagged as a dropout by the state.

“It allows Texas to tell the feds what the denominator is,” Vasquez Heilig said. “People are really good at hiding dropouts.”

The other measurement to determine the graduation rate is something called the Adjusted Freshman Graduation Rate (AFGR), which doesn’t let the state alter the denominator. In most states, the two measurements are relatively similar. In Texas, there’s enough of a discrepancy to elicit concern.

A 2013 report on graduation rates noted, “Both graduation rate measures (AFGR and ACGR) broadly agree on the rate and level of progress achieved by hispanic students. There is, however, a consistent five-to-six percentage point difference in overall graduation rates produced by the two different metrics and a ten-point divergence on the graduation rate for African Americans, which gives pause.”

“There are some data questions,” said Robert Balfanz, co-director of Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center, which helped author the reports. “They allow themselves some exceptions not everyone else allows themselves.”

He cited homeschooling and said the state also has thriving private, charter and online schools. The state “can get kids off their books” if they can show they’ve transferred to another degree-granting institution, he said, and then they no longer bear responsibility, even if the student drops out the next week.

Ratcliffe, the state spokeswoman, said the state does have “a high mobility rate,” but that “we think our count is very accurate…We believe our districts are reporting the information to us accurately.”

But Balfanz said, despite the questions, Texas is making real strides. “Something real is happening,” he said, citing the higher AFGR numbers. “Texas should tighten up a little bit because accuracy matters, but they’re still doing good stuff.”

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