Stop doubting Texas' graduation numbers

Yes, Texas is at the top. Not just in job creation. And not just in oil and gas.

No, we lead nearly every other state in the nation on high school graduation rates. The Texas Education Agency announced it earlier this year. No. 2 overall in the country and No. 1 for many ethnic groups.

The only thing that stands between us and congratulations is one little thing: Many people don’t believe it.

That included me — until I checked the numbers for myself.

The debate over how to compute graduation rates distracts from what Texas has accomplished. Still, it’s worth exploring why the state’s numbers are right.

To do that, let’s look at one line of criticism. The state says 88 percent of high school students graduated in 2013. Critics say that's obviously bogus — that if you take the number of students who walked across the stage in spring 2013 (289,298 students) and divide by the number in ninth grade four years before (391,800 students), you get a much lower figure: 74 percent. Nowhere near 88 percent.

But maybe that’s not the best measurement. Every year, there are 35,000 to 45,000 more students in ninth grade in Texas than in eighth and 10th grade. That’s because the transition out of middle school is tough, and students are much more likely to have to repeat ninth grade than any other.

Regardless of the reason, the bottom line is that the count of students in ninth grade shouldn't be used to determine graduation rates. Using the number of eighth- or 10th-graders gets us much closer to the state’s numbers:

  • 289,298 graduates divided by 340,340 seventh-graders in 2007-08 = 85 percent
  • 289,298 graduates divided by 343,389 eighth-graders in 2008-09 = 84 percent
  • 289,298 graduates divided by 391,800 ninth-graders in 2009-10 = 74 percent
  • 289,298 graduates divided by 343,450 10th-graders in 2010-11 = 84 percent

The eighth-grade estimate is 4 percentage points lower than the official figure. For a crude estimate, that’s pretty close. The state calculation, carried out according to national standards, takes the number of ninth-graders and subtracts repeaters, students who leave the state, students who drop out or earn a GED and adds those who enter the state during high school, with exclusions for certain juvenile offenders and data errors, and then compares that with those who graduate after ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grade. (Well, actually, it's more complicated than that — see page 79, Figure 3.)

Maybe the reason for the general disbelief is that good graduation rates could ruin a good story — that our schools are failing, that they’re inequitable, that they need radical overhaul, that not everyone is meant to go to college.

But arguing over details and doubting the professionals who've done their jobs detract from how Texas stacks up against the other states — where the same questions apply. For Texas’ class of 2012, graduation rates were:

  • No. 2 overall at 88 percent, tied with Nebraska, Vermont and Wisconsin and 1 point behind Iowa.
  • No. 2 among Asians, at 94 percent.
  • No. 2 among Native Americans at 87 percent, tied with Missouri.
  • No. 1 among low-income students at 85 percent, tied with Indiana.
  • No. 1 among white students at 93 percent, tied with New Jersey.
  • No. 1 among Hispanics at 84 percent, 4 points above the next state.
  • No. 1 among African-Americans at 84 percent, 5 points above the next state.

Yes, No 1. For the teachers, parents, administrators and students who pulled it off, maybe for once we can just say good job and thanks. And as Texas looks to a new round of education reform — to address large and real problems — let’s do it knowing what’s really happened. 

Michael Marder

Physics professor, UT-Austin

@ChaosMarder

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