High School Reform

Texas reports some of the highest graduation rates in the country. Are the numbers lying?

Earlier this summer, we published a map of high school graduation rates by district across the United States. We’re now breaking it down and exploring trends in different states and regions.

We need to talk about Texas.

Since publishing our map of high school graduation rates by district, Texas is by far the place I have gotten the most responses about, whether it’s pride, surprise or skepticism. The state is filled with districts reporting high graduation rates. Some people want know how these places are having such success, while others are concerned that they know exactly what’s happening: creative record keeping.

The questions about what the Lone Star State is doing right or wrong can apply to other parts of the country, too.

Related: The graduation rates from every school district* in one map

In 2013, Texas reported an 88 percent graduation rate to the federal government, well above the national average of 81 percent. As you can see, the state is filled with districts boasting graduation rates above 95 percent, including many with high poverty rates.

Is it too good to be true?  As part of a fantastic series on high school graduation, NPR took a close look at the raw numbers and found that Texas counted 360,373 ninth-graders in the fall of 2009. Four years later, 289,298 seniors received diplomas, translating to a roughly 80 percent graduation rate.

According to NPR, districts essentially changed the denominator –– that group of 360,373 ninth-graders –– by taking out ones who did things like move out of the state or transfer to a private school.

Related: What’s behind the Deep South’s low high school graduation rates?

The state’s education department, called the Texas Education Agency, says districts are responsible for documenting students who leave under state rules. Suspicious data can trigger an investigation. Using graduation data for the class of 2013, the agency identified 254 districts and charters with possible problems in how they reported students who left.

In an email, TEA spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said some of the data is ultimately inaccurate, “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.”

It’s important to note, this way of calculating graduation rates isn’t something that Texas has made up. This is how it works across the country. The idea is that it shouldn’t count against a district when students leave but don’t drop out.

Related: Graduation rates change by 30 percentage points over a few miles in the Northeast

But Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, found in a 2013 report that federal regulations for calculating graduation rates are still interpreted differently across the states. For instance, Texas gives principals more authority than others to say students left for other public schools without providing documentation from the new school.

Interestingly, Texas also still uses its own state calculation for determining graduation rates, which allows even more leniency in the numbers. For instance, a student who is court-ordered to attend a high school equivalency certificate program does not explicitly count against the district. Two graduation rates are published for every district, and those under the Texas formula often surpass what is reported to the federal government and what is in our map.

Whether or not you trust Texas’s reported statistics, there’s no denying the state is an example of how tricky and important it is to have a uniform way of calculating graduation rates. As Balfanz’s 2013 report says, “Texas is not alone in needing to get its definitions right, but as some would argue, it is among the biggest and the best, and so it really matters that it get things right.”

It matters not only so we can get accurate information about how our schools are doing, but so we can better identify which schools are struggling and where there are legitimate success stories. When calculations are questionable, it creates skepticism and undermines the hard work of teachers, administrators and students when schools really do defy the odds.

Keep checking back as we examine other regions of the United States in the weeks to come. Tell us places you want to see covered in the comments or on Twitter: @sarahbutro or @hechingerreport.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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Sarah Butrymowicz

Sarah Butrymowicz is senior editor for investigations. For her first four years at The Hechinger Report, she was a staff writer, covering k-12 education, traveling… See Archive

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