Houston state Sen. Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor nominee, vowed to reach out to all Texans in his general-election campaign.
Addressing his party’s June 2014 state convention, Patrick continued: "I’m going to go into Democratic strongholds and I’m going to tell them about school choice and educational opportunities, because we have a 40 to 50 percent dropout rate in our inner-city schools, and that cannot stand, for those families and for our state."
We wondered about those proclaimed dropout rates.
The numbers from Patrick, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, contrast sharply with those cited by the the Texas Education Agency, which reported a statewide high school dropout rate for the class of 2012 of 6.3 percent. (Austin’s high schools averaged a 3.7 percent dropout rate, topping out at LBJ High School’s 8.4 percent rate, according to the agency.) The state said nearly 88 percent of more than 316,000 seniors graduated in 2012, with another 5 percent staying in high school and 1 percent receiving GED certificates.
Patrick’s back-up information
Asked how Patrick reached his percentages, Patrick’s campaign manager, Logan Spence, said by email Patrick looked at graduation rates for selected high schools in the Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth school districts. Spence listed 11 high schools in those districts that he described as having graduation rates ranging from nearly 60 percent down to 47 percent, implying dropout rates of more than 40 percent to 53 percent. Spence said Patrick’s numbers were based on raw data for the class of 2012 posted on TEA web pages for each school.
Neary said the institute, which describes itself as a non-partisan research and advocacy organization dedicated to addressing the root causes of poor public policies affecting children, works from state data to calculate school graduation rates in part by choosing not to believe some of the reasons schools use to account for students leaving before graduation.
Like the TEA, Children at Risk acknowledges students who have died or left for home-schooling and doesn’t count any of them as dropouts. The institute’s president, Bob Sanborn, told us it also credits a school with a graduate even if a student transfers to another Texas public school sometime before graduating.
But unlike the state, the institute doesn’t assume students recorded by schools as leaving for private school or moving to a school in another state or country actually did so, instead considering such students all to be dropouts, Sanborn confirmed.
Summing up: By Patrick’s approach, the dropout rates for his subset of 11 inner-city schools ranged from nearly 41 percent to 53 percent. By the accepted state and federal gauge, the rates ranged from 5 percent to 27 percent.
We took a close look at Patrick’s dropout methodology.
Snapshot: Lee High School, Houston
To take one school as an example, we spoke with Houston school spokeswoman Sheleah Reed about the graduation rate result indicated by Patrick for students at the district’s Lee High.
The school’s TEA profile page says the 2008-09 school year started with 608 "brand new ninth graders. If you had visited our school in May 2012, you would want to see 608 students wearing caps and gowns, right?"
But students moved in and out of the school over the years, the profile says, leaving a net 531 students who "you would expect" to be 2012 graduates. Still, only 272 students received diplomas, the profile says.
At a glance, this suggests a graduation rate of 51 percent, though not acknowledging students leaving or coming to the school over the four years yields a 45 percent graduation rate, a result based on dividing the 272 graduates by the 608 students in ninth grade four years earlier. This is close to the 47 percent graduation rate for Lee High presented by Patrick’s camp.
Then again, drawing on the "leaver" codes employed by high schools, the state profile for Lee accounts for nearly all the students who didn’t graduate, stating that fewer than five students earned GEDs while 35 students remained at the school longer. Others were marked as returning to home countries (69 students); enrolling out of state (55) or in private school (41); or shifting to home schooling (less than 20). Also, 40 students dropped out or couldn’t be tracked, according to the profile.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the Houston school district, Sheleah Reed, suggested it’s an error not to adjust for students who have left and entered a school over four years or not to consider the students enrolled for another year. By email, Reed noted that by the metric accepted by the state (the longitudinal definition we covered above), Lee High had an 80 percent graduation rate. We confirmed that figure from a state chart posted online, which further indicated Lee’s class of 2012 had a 9.4 percent dropout rate.
Source: Texas Education Agency, search of website starting here, July 2, 2014.
For outside expertise, we reached out to Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and former U.S. Department of Education official. Whitehurst, testifying in December 2012 on behalf of the state in a lawsuit over its school funding system, expressed concern that high schools could game the dropout reporting system. He said what commonly happens is a student drops out but is instead listed as having moved or transferred when his classmates and even school administrators know the truth. Still, Whitehurst, by email to us, called Patrick’s calculations idiosyncratic, hence generating the problems noted by the Houston district.
Also, at our request, Lori Taylor, an associate professor in Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, explored how Patrick reached his graduation/dropout rate result for Lee High. Taylor, a member of the Children at Risk Institute’s Public Policy Advisory Board, then replied that any calculation getting to the graduation rates cited by Patrick for Lee and three other high schools he singled out as "bogus," she said by email, for ignoring certain students each school recorded as having left for other reasons. Taylor went on to say she didn’t see a way Patrick’s figures could be accurate.
Responses from Patrick, institute
We shared Taylor’s analysis with Neary and Spence, who emailed: "Dan doesn't use the state definition of ‘dropout’ because it doesn't accurately reflect the significant number of students who are leaving our schools before graduating."
Neary said by email she could understand Taylor’s reasoning, adding: "Of course we know that every student who moves from public school to private school (or another state, or their home country) isn’t actually a dropout, even though our model does assume this. Since there is no way to independently verify leaver codes," meaning how the schools account for each student who leaves, "it is all or nothing in using them. We choose to use this more conservative estimate as a counterpoint to the state’s rates. We don’t claim to have a perfect calculation for exact graduation rates, but we are transparent in our method."
Sanborn said by phone the institute's calculations are "the closest to the truth you’re going to get."
Patrick said: "We have a 40 to 50 percent dropout rate in our inner-city schools."
Asked to back up his statement, Patrick failed to account for all the state’s inner-city high schools and the handful of schools he singled out had official 2012 dropout rates of 5 percent to 27 percent, far short of 40 percent or more. His proclaimed figures depend on assuming schools hide dropouts by misrepresenting them as leaving for private school or for schooling outside Texas.
We rate this claim as False.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
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CORRECTION, July 28, 2014: This story has been amended to clarify that Lori Taylor is on an advisory board to the Children at Risk Institute; she's not on its board of directors. This change didn't affect our rating of this claim.