July 24, 2008

An Out for Schools With Many Dropouts

By Ericka Mellon, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 24--For the second year in a row, Texas schools with high dropout rates will escape landing on the state's dreaded unacceptable list thanks to a free pass from state Education Commissioner Robert Scott.

Prompted by nervous school leaders, Scott said he is giving districts another year to adjust to the state's tougher dropout standard before labeling them "academically unacceptable" for falling short.

Scott's waiver Óš-- which pleased some school superintendents Óš-- prompted frustration Wednesday from the state's two key education lawmakers, who said districts need to be held accountable for dropouts.

"I'm disappointed," said Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "Right now we are studying accountability, and as we put a waiver in at this moment in time, we are lessening the rigor and effectiveness of our accountability system."

In 2003, the Legislature ordered the Texas Education Agency to use a tougher method for calculating middle school dropout and high school graduation rates amid concerns that schools nationwide were undercounting dropouts.

The TEA first used the new method last year, prompting the agency to grant districts their first break on the dropout and graduation numbers.

That 2007 waiver kept 65 districts and 138 campuses from netting unacceptable ratings, according to the TEA. Many Houston-area districts were spared, including Brazosport, Channelview, Dickinson, Houston, Humble, North Forest, Santa Fe, Sheldon, Spring Branch and Texas City, plus the KIPP charter school chain.

An unacceptable rating can not only harm a district's reputation with parents, but it also comes with escalating sanctions that could end with the TEA ordering a school or district closed.

The TEA plans to announce the 2008 school ratings on Aug. 1. With the waiver, the ratings will be based only on student test scores.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the TEA, said the agency does not have an estimate of how many districts and schools would avoid unacceptable ratings this time because of the dropout waiver.

Schools with too many dropouts will not be off the hook entirely. Ratcliffe noted that the dropout and graduation rates still would be calculated and published for the public to see, and those schools that miss the mark will face state intervention.

"They're still assigned a technical assistance team, which is a group of educators that helps them create a plan to address the dropout issue," she said.

Counting more as dropouts Still, Rep. Rob Eissler, who chairs the House Public Education Committee, said he disagrees with the commissioner's decision to grant schools a break for a second year.

"We all know that the dropout problem is a big problem," said Eissler, R-The Woodlands. "I don't know how ignoring it in an accountability system is helping to solve it."

Ratcliffe said it was not unusual for the TEA to allow school districts two years to adjust to changes in the accountability system.

The state's new dropout definition, which comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, counts more students as dropouts, including those choosing a GED over a diploma and those who fail state-mandated exams.

Carolyn Miller, who is president of the HISD Council of PTAs, applauded Scott's waiver, saying she disagrees with the new dropout definition.

"A lot of kids have to help their parents with household expenses. Sometimes they have to drop out of school for a semester," she said.

Officials from 20 school districts Óš-- half from the Houston area Óš-- recently asked Scott to extend the dropout waiver.

"From the accountability standpoint, I recognize the value of having tougher standards because you don't want to lose a single child," Pasadena ISD Superintendent Kirk Lewis said in an interview. "But we just need a little more time."

Bob Sanborn, a Houston education activist and researcher, blasted the leeway.

"The graduation rate is probably one of the clearest forms of rating performance," said Sanborn, who heads the nonprofit Children at Risk. "And the longer that we hide behind this facade of graduation rates don't need to count, the longer it will take for us to start reforming our schools."

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