Report: Dallas ISD's dropout rate is 7th worst in nation
12:20 AM CDT on Wednesday, April 2, 2008
U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced Tuesday that she will require all states to use the same formula to determine how many of their students graduate from high school on time and how many drop out.
Graphic: 10 best, worst graduation rates in U.S. cities (A copy of this listing is also copied at the bottom of this article. - BB)
She said she is taking the unprecedented action of setting a national standard because the dropout problem has become a "silent epidemic" masked by inconsistent and incomplete data reporting systems in the states.
Her announcement came as a Washington nonprofit reported alarmingly low graduation rates in many of the nation's largest urban districts, including Dallas, which was listed as having the seventh-worst graduation rate among school systems in the 50 largest cities.
The study, issued by America's Promise Alliance, indicated that Dallas had a graduation rate of 44.4 percent in 2004, a figure that was a fraction of the official graduation rate of 80.8 percent reported for that year by the state and school district.
State officials attributed the huge gap to different methods of computing the graduation and dropout rates, noting that the state implemented a more stringent data reporting formula last year. The new formula showed lower graduation rates of 68.8 percent for Dallas and 80.4 percent for Texas for the 2005-06 school year, the most recent year data are available.
The Texas Education Agency tightened the counting system in response to claims it had underestimated the state's dropout problem. Ms. Spellings did not say Tuesday what counting method her department will require, but the new standards could mean Texas will have to change its formula again.
Improving the graduation rate is a major component of the Dallas Independent School District's Dallas Achieves reform initiative. DISD's goal is to boost the graduation rate to well above 90 percent by the end of the decade, while also raising scores on state tests and SAT tests.
Superintendent Michael Hinojosa did not return calls for comment on Tuesday, but through his spokesman said Dallas would continue using a formula that was started under the reform effort.
"We want to be able to compare apples to apples and changing criteria is just going to confuse the issue," said Dallas school district spokesman Jon Dahlander.
Bill Betzen, a teacher at Quintanilla Middle School in Dallas, was ecstatic with the move to shift to a uniform formula for determining graduation rates. Mr. Betzen, who teaches computers, has studied the dropout situation in Dallas for years and has a Web site dedicated to his research.
"It's a step in the right direction," Mr. Betzen said. "Hopefully, we'll realize how bad the problem is and we'll start to work on it."
Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said state officials also would welcome a uniform standard for determining graduation rates as long as it is based on actual rather than estimated numbers.
"We think it's a good idea and believe that Texas is ahead of the curve on this," she said. She added that the state's new counting method was developed by the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education.
Ms. Spellings said she will mandate that the new dropout data be made public so that parents and taxpayers can compare how students of every race, background and income level are performing.
"By shining a light on which students drop out, when and where, we will not only better diagnose the dropout crisis, we'll be on our way to ending it," she said.
Paul Pottinger, co-director of the Attendance Improvement Management Program at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas, said people who work in dropout prevention programs know that official dropout estimates are too low.
"It's an epidemic, but we don't treat it like an epidemic," he said. "People simply aren't aware of how big the problem is. It's worse than people think. The numbers are understated – well understated. The question is, why have they been understating the numbers for so long when the truth is so obvious?"
However, Ms. Ratcliffe of the TEA contends that the America's Promise Alliance study was based on "attrition" rates where researchers basically compared the number of high school graduates in given year with the number of ninth-graders four years earlier.
By contrast, she said, Texas tracks where students go when they withdraw from one high school so that they are not counted as dropouts if they simply move to another district or move out of state. Urban districts, in particular, have high student mobility rates, she noted.
"We absolutely agree there is a dropout problem and that the dropout rate is too high no matter how you calculate it. But we have confidence in our numbers because we now track our students from grade to grade," she said.
Critics say there are potential flaws in the current system because it depends on school districts providing correct information to the TEA and on parents giving truthful answers to local school officials on why their children have withdrawn from a particular school.
In Fort Worth, Superintendent Melody Johnson said her district has taken a community-wide approach to dealing with the dropout problem that involves enlisting help from the business community and Chambers of Commerce.
For example, she said, the business community has been asked to not employ fulltime school-age children who are not in school and not allow students to work after 10 p.m.
She said the proposed national formula for dropout rates is definitely needed.
"I think it's very misleading to the general public to have so many definitions," Dr. Johnson said. "We need something that is reasonable and consistent."
Staff writer Kent Fischer contributed to this report.