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Yellow Lights are Flashing

August 28, 2014 by William McKenzie

The Texas Education Agency reports that Latino graduation rates hit their all-time high of 85.1 percent in the 2013-2014 school -year. Likewise, graduation rates for African-America students went up to a record high of 84.1 percent. (As you will see in the Texas Tribune link, there remains a debate over how these numbers are calculated.)

Of course, the big issue is what happens next? What happens to these students once they graduate from high school?

In this recent Dallas Morning News essay,  profiled a Latina at Texas A&M who is now starting her junior year.  Jannet Barrera is persevering, although the road has not been easy.

The reality is the road beyond high school is not easy for many students from economically-challenged homes. And that road could become a harder one to travel over the next few years. Let me explain:

From 2007 to 2012, the state of Texas saw substantial growth in the number of Hispanic and African-American students who completed a bachelor’s or associate’s degree or a certificate from a technical school. The same was true for all students, as the data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board shows.

Gains in so-called BACs – bachelor’s, associate’s or certificates -- were cascading up during those five years for all students, sometimes by as much as 19,000 in a year. From 2007 to 2012, the improvements were always in the double-digit category for all students.

The gains were equally steady for Latinos and African-Americans. Latino increases in completed BACs even jumped about 10,000 between 2010 and 2011. In other years between 2007 and 2012, Latino increases went up by 5,000 a year, 7,000 a year and 8,000 a year.

Increases for African-American students were not as great but they were steady. They went up by 4,000 between 2011 and 2012 and by a rough average of around 2,000 in other years.

Now, those steady gains have flattened out. Look at the upticks in bachelor’s, associate’s or certificates for African-Americans and Latinos in 2013.

Yes, gains still were made, and that was good. But the increase in BAC completions from 2012 to 2013 for Latinos was only 3,500. That number was down considerably from the 8,000 to 10,000 gains from the previous two intervals.

African-American improvements were even less, about 300 between 2012 and 2013. That was their smallest increase since the 2006-2007 interval.

There was a similar flattening out in BAC completions for all Texas students. The increase was only about 6,000 between 2012 and 2013. That figure was down noticeably from the gains of 12,000 to 19,000 that occurred at various intervals between 2007 and 2012.

To be sure, the flattening out has occurred over only one year. One year does not make a trend.

But something happened. And it is reasonable to wonder why.

One possibility is a decline in the enrollment increases of the last several years. Data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board shows that overall college enrollment, including community colleges, started losing some of its momentum around 2010.

So, perhaps that has some influence on the flattening of the 2013 data about BACs. There were just fewer students.

But here’s something else to worry about:

The gains that occurred in the 2007-2012 period were built on a strong K-12 foundation. Students who graduated with a bachelor’s or associate’s degree or technical certificate during that period were in elementary or middle school in the late 1990s or 2000s.

The state then was focused on policies like improving reading in early grades for all students.  It also was serious about measuring students and using data from those measurements to hold schools responsible for the progress of all students.

But Texas started backing off some of those policies over the last few years. For example, the state eased up on some of the measures used to rank a school’s annual performance. Also, the Legislature cut funding for programs like the Student Success Initiative, which focused on intervening with struggling students. We also saw less momentum and emphasis on early reading and early math initiatives.

Are we going to see those decisions manifest themselves in more data like these 2013 numbers? In other words, is 2013 a lagging indicator?

We should worry about the answer. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows a flattening trend of its own. Math scores for Texas eighth graders declined in 2013 after a steady, even sharp rise from 2000 through 2011. (That includes for African-American and Hispanic eighth graders.) Similarly, gains in fourth grade reading have stalled out, after reaching a peak between 2007 and 2009.

In the past, Texas has seen improvements in K-12 achievement levels for minority students, improved graduation rates and greater attainment of credentials after high school.  Yet now we are seeing the light start flashing yellow.

William McKenzie is the editorial director of the George W. Bush Institute.




William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project. And he teaches as an adjunct journalism lecturer at SMU, where he teaches a course on media and politics.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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