News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Texas High School Graduation Rates Both Impress And Alarm


When it comes to state by state education rankings, Texas often lands near the bottom. Yet, numbers released this week by the National Center for Education Statistics showed Texas at the top of the class in the graduation rates for black and Latino high school students.

And it’s tied for second in the overall graduation rate. This year’s numbers sparked a familiar debate.

When the high school graduation rates came out last month, there were as usual many skeptics. Bill Hammond with the Texas Association of Businesses thinks the data is being manipulated.

“To me it’s very unfortunate because the schools are getting the good housekeeping seal of approval from the agencies at the time when they’re simply not producing the kind of results that we’re going to need to keep Texas competitive into the 21st century,” Hammond said.

In the latest data, the nation’s graduation rate hit an all-time high of 81 percent. In Texas, it’s 88 percent, just below Iowa and the same rate as Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Critics, like Hammond, say the problem is that kids are being counted as high school graduates who actually shouldn’t be.

DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, explained some of the history behind the controversial numbers.

“Graduation rates always looked at students who completed all of the requirements they needed to get a high school diploma, including passing their course and any exit level assessments that the state required. What changed was our dropout definition.”

Culbertson says a decade ago, the state changed the definition of a dropout to more closely match the federal definition. But critics say there are too many loopholes giving a pass to students who should be counted as dropouts and not counted toward the graduation rate.

Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the nonprofit Children at Risk, said some kids end up going to what he calls “diploma mills,” or unaccredited schools, or they're listed as leaving school for other reasons.

“Kids that are said to be leaving for another country," Sanborn said. "Kids that are said to be leaving for another state when indeed there’s actually no documentation there. So, those numbers being measured are problematic."

Jerry Thomas, who’s the dean of the College of Education at the University of North Texas, had a different take and scoffed at the criticism.

“I find it kind of interesting that when Texas is at the bottom of something as we have been with data of preschool children, people seemed really unhappy and [say] ‘What’s going on?’ he said. "But then when Texas is at the top of something, we say, ‘Well, how can that be?’ ”

Thomas said a question that always gets asked when the topic of graduation rates comes up is about college readiness.

“In some sense, we’re asking the wrong questions," Thomas said. "We say, 'Are these kids all ready for college?'

Well, the intent is not to prepare all these kids for college. 30 percent of these kids are going to college and what about the other 70 percent?”

He said questions should also be directed employers. They should be asked if the students who are graduating are work-ready.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.