Houston Rapped for Hiding Dropouts

K-12 Testing

Houston, Texas, touted as a national school reform model, appears to have staked its claim to fame not only on inflating test scores by narrowly teaching to the test, but also by failing to report a growing number of school dropouts.


The district, formerly run by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, narrowly averted the embarrassment of having its state school rating lowered from "acceptable" to "academically unacceptable" for under-reporting close to 3,000 dropouts. While Houston has reported dropout rates as low as 1.5 percent per year, experts estimate that its cumulative rate is closer to 40 percent. A Manhattan Institute survey ranked Houston's 52 percent graduation rate near the bottom of the country's 50 largest school districts.


The district's response has been to discipline two high school employees for faulty record keeping and to promise to maintain more accurate data. It has until February 2004 to improve if it wants to avoid the "unacceptable" designation.


State Rep. Rick Noriega, who had called for an investigation by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), charged that Houston school employees filed fraudulent records because of systematic pressure to improve the district's accountability rating, which is based on scores on the state test.


Two former counselors at Houston's Stevenson Middle School told the public television show NOW with Bill Moyers that the accounting practices amounted to a systematic, potentially criminal scheme to prop up standardized test scores. They have accused the district of falsely reclassifying hundreds of students so they would be exempt from testing and accountability reports.


Linda McNeil, professor of education at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and author of Contradictions of School Reform (See Examiner, Summer 2000) said these dropouts should be viewed as the logical outcome of the system, not as unintended consequences. "The accountability system itself is producing many of these losses," McNeil said. "The system `works,' that is, produces positive indicators, only when it loses enough of the low-achieving kids, because they are seen as `liabilities' to the school's rating." McNeil added that, in Texas, the students seen as liabilities are largely Latino, black, poor and recent immigrants.


McNeil said Houston schools hide losses with a technique similar to one used by a notorious Texas firm. "It's an Enron system. One indicator is real easy to manipulate. Enron was carrying its losses on another set of books," McNeil explained. "Our school districts are carrying the losses on a different ledger, and it's the dropouts."


A TEA report released in October blames the district's problems on decentralization, but a former assistant principal at Sharpstown High School said decentralization had nothing to do with it. Robert Kimball, the assistant principal who blew the whistle on the fraudulent recordkeeping at Sharpstown and was reassigned to a windowless office, told The New York Times that principals were under extreme pressure to make their numbers look good. "You need to understand the atmosphere in Houston," Kimball said. "People are afraid…Panicky. They have to make their numbers."


Noriega charged, "From the present secretary of education, there has been systemic pressure at the highest level for the school district to show whatever they had to, to put a better face on it," referring to Paige's tenure as Houston superintendent. One year after Paige implemented a new accounting system, HISD's reported dropout rate fell from 6.7 percent to 3.7 percent.


Houston has been touted as the model for a test-based system of accountability that inspired No Child Left Behind. Now questions are being raised not only about the veracity of the Houston claims but about the basis of President Bush's education policy. As school officials nationwide begin to speak out about NCLB's unrealistic mandates and punitive consequences, Houston's experience suggests NCLB will tempt some administrators to manipulate enrollment data to hide dropouts or actively push low-scoring students out of school.