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Questions on Data Cloud Luster of Houston Schools
New York Times
July 11, 2003



HOUSTON When Jerroll Tyler, a sophomore at Sharpstown High School here, turned 18, he met the full force of Texas' no-nonsense approach to education. He received an attendance contract, warning that if he missed more than two days of school, he was out permanently. By week's end, Mr. Tyler had caroused his way past the limit.

Months later, when he showed up to take a state math exam needed for graduation, a dean at Sharpstown told him he was no longer enrolled. "I went home, and I never looked back at school again," Mr. Tyler said.

Which was why Mr. Tyler and his mother, Karen Gamble, were shocked to see that Sharpstown High claimed it had no dropouts at all last year. It reported, instead, that Mr. Tyler had transferred to Southwest High, a charter school he had never even visited. Some 462 other students left the school that year, and Sharpstown claimed that not one had dropped out.

Sharpstown was not alone. A recent state audit in Houston, which examined records from 16 middle and high schools, found that more than half of the 5,500 students who left in the 2000-1 school year should have been declared dropouts but were not. That year, Houston schools reported that only 1.5 percent of its students had dropped out.

The audit which recommended lowering the ranking of 14 of the 16 schools from the best to the worst, has been a stunning blow to the Houston school system, the largest and most celebrated district in Texas. Last year, the city won a $1 million prize as best urban district in the country, from the Broad Foundation, which is based in Los Angeles.

The city has also been a pillar of the so-called Texas miracle in education, whose emphasis on grading school performance became the model for the rest of the country under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. It was largely on the strength of his success here that Rod Paige, Houston's former superintendent, followed George W. Bush east to become secretary of education.

Now, some here are questioning whether the miracle may have been smoke and mirrors, at least on the high school level. And they are suggesting that perhaps Houston is a model of how the focus on school accountability can sometimes go wrong, driving administrators to alter data or push students likely to mar a school's profile through poor attendance or low test scores out the back door.

"It was Enron accounting," said Joseph Rodriguez, a former employee of the district's office of research and accountability, who is running for an open seat on the Houston school board. "Who are our dropouts? We haven't identified them."

Dr. Paige, who ran the Houston system from 1994 to early 2001, declined to directly address questions about the undercounting of dropouts. Dan Langan, a spokesman, said, "The secretary stands by his record of accomplishment in Texas."

Mr. Langan said "Dr. Paige has a very strong record of success in education reform in Houston" and had "promoted a culture of accountability."

The state audit, issued last month, recommended that the whole Houston school system be ranked "unacceptable."

Houston school officials are appealing the proposed reclassifications, saying that the problem was not large-scale fraud but sloppy record keeping. Under Texas' system for reporting dropouts, schools are supposed to enter one of several dozen codes when students leave, and must have proof that students did not drop out but left, for example, to attend another school.

The state audit said that 3,000 of the 5,500 folders examined did not contain sufficient evidence, like student signatures, to prove that students were continuing their educations. The students should therefore be reclassified as dropouts, it said.

In an e-mail message to state officials obtained by The New York Times, one auditor noted that many students who had left school were coded as intending to enroll in an alternative or high school equivalency program, and were, by Texas rules, not dropouts. But the coding was often based on little more than a statement by a school principal.

"If it was permissible for school officials to declare intent for a student, they could state anything they please and we would be obliged to accept their word as verification," wrote the auditor, L. T. Bailey. "A school official may witness, record or `document' the expressed intent of the parent, guardian, adult student, but they cannot supplant that choice."

Kaye Stripling, Houston's superintendent of schools, noted in the city's appeal that a private audit of Houston schools, based on records from the 2001-2 school year, disputed only half as many records as the state review did using the earlier records. Because Houston is making progress, Dr. Stripling contended, it should not be punished.

The Houston system's supporters in the business community, some with close ties to the Bush administration, maintain that the city's dropout figures have long defied credibility but do not compromise the state's educational achievements.

"The Texas miracle was not about high school performance, it was about elementary school performance," said Donald R. McAdams, an 11-year member of the Houston school board and author of the 2000 book "Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools. . .and Winning! Lessons from Houston."

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, which oversees the state's public schools, said that the state recognized the shortcomings of its method for calculating dropouts and that it was adopting a more stringent federal definition. In the 2004-5 school year, Ms. Ratcliffe said, Texas will begin judging schools by graduation rates, not dropout rates.

The state's inquiry here began after a local television station, KHOU, reported in February that Sharpstown had falsified dropout records. An assistant principal at the school, Robert Kimball, said he had assigned an employee to contact some 30 students who he mistakenly thought had not shown up for classes in September 2002. In fact, they had left the year before. Some were attending other schools, but the majority had dropped out.

When the school reported its dropout figures to the state, however, it altered the records to show that none had dropped out. The school accused a former computer specialist, Kenneth Cuadra, of altering the data, but Mr. Cuadra has said that he changed the codes under the orders of senior administrators at Sharpstown, and that he restored the correct codes the next morning, after reflecting on the implications of what he had been asked to do.

According to records he provided, Dr. Kimball wrote to Sharpstown's principal, Carol Wichmann, last November, warning her that the school was misreporting drop out figures.

"We go from 1,000 Freshman to less than 300 Seniors with no dropouts," Dr. Kimball wrote. "Amazing!" The school went on to officially report that it had no dropouts, insisting even after a district official questioned the claim at a school with "74.7 of the students at risk."

Dr. Wichmann did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview with KHOU this year, she maintained that the school truly had no dropouts. The school has formally charged Mr. Cuadra with falsifying the data, which he denies.

To Rick Noriega, a state representative who once ran a dropout prevention program, the claim of zero dropouts was infuriating. He requested the state audit.

"My whole concern about this is that we are in denial about the severity of the problem," Mr. Noriega said.

In Texas, schools are judged based on standardized examination scores, attendance and dropout rates. At Sharpstown, the entire staff received cash bonuses for the school's performance the year Jerroll Tyler said he was forced out.

In a third of Houston's 30 high schools, scores on the standardized exams have risen as enrollment has shrunk. At Austin High, for example, 2,757 students were enrolled in the 1997-1998 school year, when only 65 percent passed the 10th grade math test, an important gauge of school success in Texas. Three years later, 99 percent of students passed the math exam, but enrollment shrank to 2,215 students. The school also reported that dropout figures had plummeted 92 percent, to 0.3 percent from 4.1 percent.

Dr. Kimball, in an interview here, said that many schools had assistant principals who act as "bouncers," pushing students who show up late to school or are frequently absent to quit. In addition, schools may hold back 9th graders who do poorly on a pre-test for the 10th grade math exam, producing an artificial "9th grade bulge" in student enrollment, Dr. Kimball said. Studies have demonstrated that students who are left back are more likely to drop out.

"You're driving kids out that will skew your test scores," Mr. Noriega said.

Clement Nduli, an immigrant from Zaire, reported to 9th grade homerooms for two years, though his report card shows he took 10th grade courses the second year. Next month, he is to enter 11th grade.

"I was in 9th grade, 9th grade, then 11," said Mr. Nduli. "They tell me it doesn't matter."

Michael Scott, a senior at Sharpstown last year, failed the math examination six times and ultimately could not graduate. He and his mother, Annette Small, fault the school for not giving him any math courses in his senior year to help him pass. Nevertheless, Sharpstown reported Michael Scott as one of its graduates.

"Michael has a right to have an education and a function as a young black man in society, and they took that away from him," Ms. Small said.

Mr. Tyler, the Sharpstown dropout, says it was "a miracle" that turned him around, so that now he works as a certified long distance mover with his father. An aunt and uncle took him in, offering the steadiness he needed to grow. "They taught me how to listen," he said.

Still, his mother said she was disgusted by the revelations about Sharpstown administrators who concealed the true fate of its students.

"They're teaching the kids to abide by the rules," Ms. Gamble said, "but they don't follow the rules themselves."