America, Rick Perry trumpeted, be like Texas.
Declaring his candidacy for president, the former 10-year governor saluted job gains on his watch, then turned to public education. "Texas now has the second-highest high school graduation rate in the country," Perry said. "And it has the highest graduation rate for African Americans and Hispanics."
Most everyone likes rankings. We wondered about these because in February 2013, we rated Mostly True a Perry claim that the state’s high school graduation rates were the nation’s third-highest. In 2011, Texas tied with five states with the No. 3 graduation rate of 86 percent. Unsaid by Perry: Three states had higher rates. So Texas could best have been described as fourth-ranked. Also, by another gauge — comparing graduates to the number of students in ninth grade three years earlier — Texas remained among middling states for 2009-10, with a 79 percent completion rate.
Perry’s backup information
To our inquiry about Perry’s latest claim, his campaign spokesman, Travis Considine, guided us to a U.S. Department of Education web page presenting graduation rates for the states, plus a chart showing such rates by race/ethnicity.
By email, Considine said that in 2012-13, the Texas high school graduation rate of 88 percent ranked second nationally. The same year, according to the federal information, Texas graduation rates for Hispanic and black students exceeded the rates in any other state.
Government: Graduation rate placed Texas third for 2012-13
We took his cue, finding the government’s January 2015 chart indicating the state’s 2012-13 graduation rate of 88 percent tied Texas for second nationally with Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota and Wisconsin. Iowa led with a 90 percent rate.
According to a note under the National Center for Education Statistics chart, the government’s four-year "adjusted cohort graduation rate" was based on the "number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma divided by the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class." That is, according to the note, the size of the potential graduating class was adjusted starting the first year of high school by adding students who subsequently transferred in and subtracting students who transferred out, moved to another country or who died as reported by each state.
On this front, we also checked with the Texas Education Agency. Spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson advised by email that a follow-up federal chart, dated February 2015, presented each state’s graduation rate as a three-digit figure, including tenths of a percentage point.
This added detail resulted in Texas landing third nationally, still tied with Wisconsin. TEA said in a March 2015 press release: "The Texas graduation rate hit 88.0 percent for the second consecutive year, tying Wisconsin for the nation’s third highest. Only Iowa at 89.7 percent and Nebraska at 88.5 percent posted higher graduation rates for the Class of 2013." To see if there was another way to shake these figures, we rounded each of the rates in the chart to two digits. Nope: Texas still placed third, tied with Wisconsin, North Dakota and New Jersey.
Government: Texas No. 1 in graduation of Hispanic, black students
The same chart bore out Perry’s claim about Texas having the highest graduation rates for Hispanic and African American students. The 85.1 percent Texas Hispanic graduation rate in 2012-13 was higher than such rate for other states, edging the 82.5 percent rates for Hispanic students in Indiana and the 82 percent rate for such students in Arkansas. Likewise, according to the chart, Texas ranked No. 1 that year for its black graduation rate, 84.1 percent, besting No. 2 New Hampshire, which had an 82 percent rate, and North Dakota, with an 80 percent rate.
Another gauge puts Texas in middle of pack
From past fact checks, we recognize another method often used to gauge graduation successes. In this vein, we rated as True a 2010 claim by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White that Texas then ranked 43rd nationally for its 61.3 percent graduation rate in 2008-09.
That conclusion was based on comparing the year’s number of graduates to the number of ninth-graders four years earlier, an indicator often called "attrition." The intent is to get a snapshot of how many students graduate in four years.
In 2011-12, the latest year of available data, Texas had an 82 percent "averaged freshman graduation rate," according to a center chart, putting it in a tie with four states. Twenty-one states had better rates; Vermont and Nebraska ranked first with 93 percent rates.
To our inquiry, Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at California State University Sacramento who has been critical of how Texas achieves its reported graduation rates, urged us to put stock in the attrition indicator because, he said, it shows the substantial dropoffs in student enrollment between ninth grade and the end of 12th grade.
The latest Texas example: In 2010-11, according to the TEA, 390,665 students were in ninth grade. Three years later, the agency says, there were 308,851 12th-graders, a 21 percent difference. That same year, 2013-14, 303,109 students graduated, the agency says. That graduating class, by our calculation, was 78 percent the size of the ninth-grade class three years before.
By email, Heilig suggested such enrollment drop-offs suggest a soft spot in the calculation of the graduation rates that place Texas among the nation’s best performers. He said that’s probably because the rates are rooted in each school district reporting the progress of each student, making it at least possible for administrators to record dropouts as students who left for legitimate reasons — such as moving to another state. In May 2014, Heilig laid out his own look at how Texas schools apply student "leaver" codes here.
A TEA spokeswoman expressed confidence in how Texas tracks students. Lauren Callahan said by email that if a district’s reported reasons for students leaving school look suspicious, it can trigger a state review. "Is some leaver information ultimately inaccurate?" Callahan said. "Yes, but it is usually not because someone is intentionally lying. People just change their minds. At the time a student withdrew from public school, the parent signed a document saying the child was being transferred to a private school, for example. Ultimately something happens and the child never enrolls anywhere."
Perry said: "Texas now has the second-highest high school graduation rate in the country. And it has the highest graduation rate for African Americans and Hispanics."
Almost: In 2012-13, per federal statistics, Texas ranked No. 3 in overall graduation rates and No. 1 for its African American and Hispanic rates. Then again, comparing graduates to the number of ninth graders enrolled three years earlier, Texas in 2011-12 had an 82 percent "averaged freshman graduation rate," tying with four states and trailing 21 states.
We grade this claim Mostly True.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.
Truth-O-Meter article, "Rick Perry says Texas has third-highest high school graduation rates, a 'significant turnaround,’" PolitiFact Texas, Feb. 11, 2013
Charts, "Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) for the United States, the 50 states and the District of Columbia: School years 2010-11 to 2012-13," National Center for Education Statistics, January 2015; "Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), by race/ethnicity and selected demographics for the United States, the 50 states, and the District of Columbia: School year 2012–13," NCES, February 2015; "Public high school averaged freshman graduation rate (AFGR), by gender and race/ethnicity, for the United States, the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other jurisdictions: School year 2011–12," 2014 (downloaded June 15-16, 2015)
Email, DeEtta Culbertson, information specialist, Texas Education Agency, June 4, 2015
Press release, "Texas student groups' graduation rates outpace peers," Texas Education Agency, March 19, 2015
Emails (excerpted), Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies; director, Doctorate in Educational Leadership, California State University Sacramento, June 5 and June 7, 2015
Blog post, "Uncovering Lies and Damn Lies in Arne Duncan’s Graduation Rates," Cloaking Inequality blog, Julian Vasquez Heilig, May 7, 2014
Emails, Lauren Callahan, information specialist, Texas Education Agency, June 17-18, 2015
Read About Our Process
In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.