While schools in Texas have long had a less-than-sterling reputation, new data from the U.S. Department of Education suggests that the state has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country.
Texas, with an 86 percent high school graduate rate, ranked alongside Tennessee, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Indiana. Only four states—Iowa, Wisconsin, and Vermont—had higher rates. This represents a marked improvement over 2007, when Texas's high school graduate rate was only 78 percent.
Michael Williams, the Texas education commissioner, had praise for the results, reported Morgan Smith, who covers education for the Texas Tribune . “This state-by-state comparison confirms what Texas educators have been saying for a long time," Williams said in a statement. "Our public schools are delivering a high quality education and our students are having great success."
Lindsay Kastner of the San Antonio Express-News pointed out that all 50 states calculated their graduation rates employing the same methodology (the one Texas has used for ten years) for the first time during 2010-2011 school year. But some called that methodology into question. According to Smith:
[S]ome critics say the federal definition, while an improvement, still allows states and districts to mask true graduation numbers. School officials report student withdrawals with more than a dozen different “leaver codes,” only some of which count toward graduation rates. If a school codes a student as returning to a home country, or entering home school, for instance, that student does not factor into the school's four-year graduation rate.
The leaver code system can make gathering accurate numbers for graduation rates a challenge — especially because a low graduation rate holds ramifications for everyone involved in tracking student achievement, from principals and school leaders to state lawmakers. In the past, the TEA has audited districts for misuse of the codes, which have also drawn criticism from advocacy groups in the past.
The codes provide too many opportunities for school districts to artificially boost graduation numbers, said Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business, which advocates on education policy in the state.
“The fact that we are trying to say that we are doing really well and everything is hunky-dory in Texas with regard to dropouts is unfair to the future students in our workforce,” he said. “And I think it's doing a disservice to tout these inflated numbers as if everything is okay.”
And Terrence Stutz of the Dallas Morning News reminded readers that "the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association recently estimated that 26 percent of Texas students dropped out of school before graduation in 2012."