Sunday, March 25, 2012
By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz | AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Saturday, March 17, 2012
Dropout rates, graduation rates, retention rates, passing rates for standardized tests — the education arena is flush with statistics.
Now, a private foundation in Houston is seeking to cut through the noise and focus attention in Texas on what it considers the single most valuable measure of educational effectiveness: the percentage of eighth-graders at public schools who go on to earn a postsecondary degree or certificate within six years of their expected high school graduation date.
A study commissioned by the foundation, the Houston Endowment, found that only about 1 in 5 eighth-graders earns such a credential.
"My reaction was, ‘This can't be right.' But it is right," said Larry Faulkner, a former president of the University of Texas who retired last month after six years as president and CEO of the endowment.
The study didn't take a position on what the credential-earning rate should be, other than to say it should be "much larger." But it warned that low rates for some minority groups are especially troubling.
"White students' rates of earning a college credential are two to two and a half times higher than those of Hispanics and blacks," the report said. "Given the state's growing Hispanic population, this means that it will be impossible for Texas to contribute its share in reaching national attainment goals without improving Hispanic college-going and graduation rates."
The study was conducted for the Houston Endowment by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a private nonprofit based in Boulder, Colo. Using data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and other sources, researchers tracked the educational trajectory of all 883,260 public school students in Texas who started eighth grade in 1996, 1997 and 1998.
After 11 years, 19.9 percent had earned a bachelor's degree, associate degree or certificate. There is leakage throughout the education pipeline, as students drop out of high school or college.
Thus far, the study said, only one other state has generated comparable data: Florida, where 17.2 percent of eighth-graders earned a credential. A national study conducted 10 years ago came up with an estimate of 29.3 percent.
Credential-earning rates in Texas varied considerably among racial and ethnic groups, with Asian Americans at 41.3 percent, whites at 27.6 percent, Native Americans at 14.1 percent, Hispanics at 11.6 percent and blacks at 11.4 percent. Higher education specialists say such disparities arise from various factors.
"Three overarching predictors are level of a parent's education, the rigor of the high school years and family income," said George Grainger, director of planning and research for the Houston Endowment.
The study also found disparities by gender, with female students earning a credential at the rate of 23.9 percent and male students at the rate of 16.1 percent. The breakdown ranged from 7.7 percent for black males to 46.5 percent for Asian American females.
The data do not account for so-called interstate mobility: Some students moved and earned a credential in another state. Researchers estimated that this adds 2 percentage points, for an overall credential-earning rate of 21.9 percent.
Texas has taken a number of steps in recent years in an effort to improve its public schools and higher education institutions, including adoption of various accountability measures for the former and a "Closing the Gaps by 2015" plan for the latter.
But progress has been slow on a number of fronts, such as getting the best leaders and teachers into the schools with the most students at risk of academic failure, Grainger said. And many higher education institutions don't take developmental, or remedial, education very seriously, Faulkner said.
Moreover, there is an overarching question of resources for addressing the issue: The state Legislature last year cut funding sharply for public schools, higher education and student financial aid even as enrollment is surging.
Sixteen educational, charitable and business organizations have endorsed the Houston Endowment-commissioned study as both accurate and significant in highlighting a key measure of educational effectiveness.
The findings are "disturbing," said Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business. "The report confirms what we know: The public education system across the board is not producing results necessary for Texas to remain competitive, whether it's (kindergarten to 12th grade) or community colleges and beyond."
John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas, an initiative of the Dallas-based Communities Foundation of Texas, said he found the credential-earning rates surprisingly low. He noted that public school and higher education officials often point fingers of blame at each other but that this study, by covering the continuum of education, shows the overarching challenge facing the state.
The coordinating board has done a similar analysis for a number of years that tracks seventh-grade students, said Dominic Chavez, a spokesman for the agency.
Houston Endowment officials said many states don't start collecting the relevant data until the eighth grade. They said the organization is committed to issuing an annual report "for the foreseeable future," perhaps broadening it to include other states as their information becomes available.