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Published in Print: July 9, 2003, as Houston Faces Questions On Dropout Data

Houston Faces Questions On Dropout Data

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The Houston school district is appealing to state officials not to lower its accountability rating to "academically unacceptable," after errors in the district's recording of dropout data were revealed.

In a letter dated June 27, Superintendent Kaye Stripling also asked the state education agency to appoint a person to monitor the progress the 211,000- student district has made in tracking its students who leave school.

An investigative team from the Texas Education Agency reviewed 5,458 student files at 12 Houston high schools and four middle schools this spring, following allegations that some files had been altered. The files were all from the 2000-01 school year; Rod Paige was the district's superintendent that fall, before being confirmed as the U.S. secretary of education in January 2001.

According to a preliminary report to the state commissioner of education, 2,999 files did not have sufficient data to back up the "leaver code" used to explain why a student was no longer attending school, or used the wrong code altogether. The codes include explanations for when student are being home-schooled, have moved to another school, or have moved out of the country.

The team changed the code of each of the files in question to indicate that the student had dropped out of school. It also recommended that the district's state accountability rating, which is based on dropout rates and test scores, be lowered from "academically acceptable" to "academically unacceptable."

The report also called for lowering the accountability rating of 16 middle and high schools—some of which have the high ratings of "exemplary" or "recognized"—to "academically unacceptable."

Those sanctions do not have any financial consequences, according to Debbie Graves- Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the TEA.

Laurie Bricker

But what is at stake is the district's image, said Laurie Bricker, the president of the Houston school board. "That reputation is very precious," she said.

In response to the TEA's findings, Superintendent Stripling wrote a letter to Ron McMichael, the state's deputy commissioner for finance and accountability, explaining why some mistakes were made and pointing out steps the district has made to rectify problems in tracking students.

Pointing Fingers

Ms. Stripling put some of the blame on the state, saying that auditors had given the district only one work day to compile all the records that needed be reviewed. The letter also said that during the 2000-01 school year, the TEA changed the way students should be tracked, which made the process much more cumbersome and confusing, according to the district.

Other districts had problems with the switch in the system, Ms. Graves-Ratcliffe said. "People weren't used to keeping that detailed information," she said.

The high mobility rate among students in Texas makes tracking them even more difficult, Ms. Graves-Ratcliffe said.

In her appeal to the state, Ms. Stripling stressed that the district has made strides to improve its graduation rate.

Last fall, the superintendent formed a panel of business leaders, community members, and district employees to study the dropout problem.

The district panel's report, which was released this past spring, included 40 recommendations. Those measures included adopting a single definition of "dropout," creating more alternative programs for students, strengthening the audit system to make sure all schools are accurately reporting their dropout data, and adopting clear procedures for reporting dropouts.

Those efforts, which Ms. Bricker said were not reviewed by the state, should be taken into consideration, she argued. "We are committed to making it right," the school board president said.

Vol. 22, Issue 42, Page 3

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