November 08, 2003

Houston drop-out statistics and education 'miracle'

Education 'Miracle' Has a Math Problem. Bush Critics Cite Disputed Houston Data, by Michael Dobbs, The Washington Post, November 8, 2003 (front page). The article reports on the fraudulent drop-out statistics in the Houston school district during the tenure there of now education secretary Rod Paige.

Conceding that individual "indiscretions" may have occurred in a school system that serves more than 200,000 students, Paige described the Houston Independent School District as "the most evaluated school district in the history of America." He said he places great stock in the credibility of an accountability system that demands quantifiable results from administrators, teachers and children.

"The whole system for me rode on integrity," Paige said.

This image of integrity is not supported by the Washington Post article, or by earlier reporting on the Houston drop-out statistics. The WP article reports on clear fraud at one high school and continues:

An investigation by state auditors showed that at least 14 other Houston high schools, including Austin, reported unusually low dropout rates in 2000-2001, although there is no evidence administrators falsified data. By reporting a dropout rate of less than 0.5 percent, school principals increase their chances of winning bonuses of as much as $10,000 and earning top accountability ratings for their campuses.

After years of relying on dropout statistics as a key component in their annual accountability studies, school officials concede that they were worthless all along. "The annual dropout rate was a crock, and we're not [using] it anymore," said Robert R. Stockwell Jr., the district's chief academic officer.

In this matter, and writing from quite a distance without local knowledge, I am a lot more sympathetic to the school officials than to the Texas Education Authority officials. The TEA decided that schools must report drop-out statistics, but of course schools have no good way of knowing which students have moved to another district, switched to another school, or have really dropped out - and the school officials may well decide that it is none of their business and not worth their time to try to track down students that have left.

The WP article also pays attention to score inflation in Houston on the Texas 10th grade test - a very important benchmark in their high school accountability system. I am not surprised and not disturbed that many students are held back in 9th grade. The WP article, however, mentions cases - not clear if they are isolated or part of a pattern - of students that are held back twice in 9th grade and then advanced to 11th grade, thus not polluting the 10th grade test scores.

Posted by Bas Braams at November 8, 2003 11:32 AM