Don't let data fail Texas students

Photo by Gabe Hernandez

Here’s the good news about dropout rates in Texas: They're down significantly from over a decade ago, and schools have continued to chip away at the problem.

The bad news? Progress is still too slow. We’ve lost 3.4 million students to attrition since 1987, and according to our forecast models, we’ll lose 2.4 million more students by 2035. Black students are three times as likely and Hispanic students twice as likely to drop out as their white counterparts.

Those are sobering numbers. But to fix the problem, we must ensure that we’re correctly counting how many high schoolers are graduating and how many are being left behind — a subject that has stirred debate in the Texas education community.

As the principal investigator of the first statewide study of attrition — and as someone who has worked for more than 25 years with parents, students, schools, and business and community leaders to lower dropout rates in Texas, nationally and in other countries — I can say without question that every success comes from seeing the full picture of dropout, attrition and graduation rates, and developing a sound, strategic course of action.

Tempting as it may be to rely on just one measure, different kinds of counts yield starkly different information about how our students are doing.

While Texas ranks second nationally, for example, on a measure called the “adjusted cohort graduation rate,” the state ranked 22nd for the same time period on the “averaged freshman graduation rate,” another counting method used by the National Center for Education Statistics.

And though each method has its strengths, to derive the adjusted cohort rate, tens of thousands of Texas students must be excluded from the count. In 2012-13, for example, the Texas Education Agency reported that 50,000 students should not be counted because they were thought to have “moved to another educational setting.” Another 32,000 were excluded because they left school for “reasons unknown.” And without a consistent verification system, there's no way to assure that students are, in fact, still on track toward high school graduation.

So while Texas is making progress, we need to continue looking at multiple, transparent measures and taking action to ensure that all of our students graduate.

In the 1980s and '90s, the Texas Legislature acted on research findings to pass state policies requiring dropout data collection and reporting and set a 95 percent graduation rate as the standard by which to measure our success. We aren’t there yet. But today, more complete information about how students are faring — and why — is bringing us closer to that goal.

In San Antonio, families, community members and educators are partnering around key comprehensive data through the United Way of San Antonio’s Eastside Promise Neighborhood initiative to address absenteeism and help students graduate.

In the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in the Rio Grande Valley, Superintendent Daniel King — along with university, business and community partners, and family groups — has used attrition, graduation and college-sending data to cut dropout rates in half in six years and increase college-going rates.

Community-based nonprofits, like AVANCE, have drawn on comprehensive information about family support needs to foster cross-generational resources and leadership to dramatically increase school readiness and cut attrition rates.

When it comes to doing what's right for children, we need to build on and speed up these successes. The future can be bright for all Texas children, but only if we count every student.

María Robledo Montecel

CEO of the Intercultural Development Research Association