Growing number of Hispanics leaving school in Texas; 20.7% dropout rate is worse than in Florida, California, study says

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 9A

The national Hispanic dropout rate isn’t quite as bad as some have claimed, but Texas is bucking the trend and letting an increasing number of Latinos fall through the cracks, a study released Thursday says.

The report, from the Pew Hispanic Center, analyzed dropout statistics nationally and for the three states with the largest Hispanic populations: Texas, California and Florida.

It found that Texas’ Hispanic dropout rate increased from 19.5 percent in 1990 to 20.7 percent in 2000. Texas also had the highest rate of the three, ahead of California’s 17.8 percent and Florida’s 18.8 percent.

The figures are based on census calculations of the number of Hispanics 16 to 19 years old who didn’t have a diploma or GED and weren’t enrolled in school.

“If these numbers are right, it’s a very bad sign for Texas,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, whose own disputed statistics assert that the state’s Hispanic dropout rate dropped 46 percent between 1996 and 2001.

The report says previous estimates of the national Hispanic dropout rate – sometimes cited as 40 percent or more – have typically overestimated the problem because they included recent immigrants who never enrolled in American schools.

For example, the 2000 census estimated that 21 percent of all Hispanics ages 16 to 19 were dropouts. But among Hispanics born in the United States, the dropout rate was only 14 percent, the study says.

“I think there are reasons for optimism,” said Richard Fry, a senior research associate of the center and author of the report.

Immigrant Hispanics dropped out at a much higher rate: 33.7 percent. But only 18 percent of immigrants who actually enrolled in American schools dropped out.

“Generally when the public uses the phrase ‘dropout,’ the assumption is that they’re dropping out of our schools,” Dr. Fry said. “For Latinos, that’s often not the case.”

But by any measure, the Hispanic dropout rate remains higher than for other subgroups. The same method of calculation found dropout rates of 12 percent for black students and 8 percent for white students.

How to count dropouts has been a thorny problem for educators in Texas and around the country. Since 1994, Texas schools have been rated based on what the state calls the “annual dropout rate,” which critics have derided as too low.

Dallas schools, for instance, have an annual dropout rate of 1.1 percent, officially. But they enrolled 15,095 freshmen last year and only 6,307 seniors.

A bill passed by the Legislature last month requires Texas to use the federal government’s definition of a dropout, which counts most of those who receive GEDs as dropouts, in its new accountability system. A study released last year found that switching to the tougher federal definition would nearly quadruple the state’s dropout rate.