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What's Behind the Falling Latino Dropout Rates?

There are many reasons why Latino dropout rates have fallen drastically, experts say.
Image: Arvada West Graduates 50th Class
Students pose for photos before Arvada West High Schools graduation ceremony at the Coors Events Center on the Campus of the University of Colorado on May 22, 2013 in Boulder, Colorado. Arvada West High School celebrated it's 50th graduating class this year.Seth McConnell / Denver Post via Getty Images

Something is afoot in the education of Latinos.

Consider these facts:

_ The Hispanic dropout rate, 14 percent, is the lowest it’s been in three decades and has been cut in half since 2000.

_ About a fourth of the people who took the GED test in 2013 were Latino, the largest share since 2003.

_ The graduation rate for Hispanics, different than the dropout rate, was up to 76 percent to 2012, a 15 percentage point increase from 2006.

Latino leaders and education experts cite these facts by heart, but they are less precise in pinpointing exactly how Hispanics got to these better education markers.

Explanations vary from the changed and tougher economy to policies instituted in the Bush and Obama administrations. Others point to local school districts manipulating data or the fact that larger Latino student populations have focused the attention of educators who previously may have neglected their needs.

“If someone had discovered a silver bullet, there are a lot of people who care deeply about this and we would have applied that vaccine nationwide if it was that easy.” _ John Gomperts, president and CEO for America's Promise Alliance

There’s good reason for the varied reasons, said John Gomperts, president and CEO for America’s Promise Alliance, that has a goal of getting the national graduation rate to 90 percent by the year 2020.

“If someone had discovered a silver bullet, there are a lot of people who care deeply about this and we would have applied that vaccine nationwide if it was that easy,” Gomperts said.

Instead, he said, what has worked has been recognizing the challenge and becoming determined to fix it, as well as building community support for whatever in school or around school initiative, program or plan gets results.

“It is very complicated, there are so many factors involved,” Gomperts said.

What is certain is Latinos - who in polling consistently identify education as a top concern - have compelling reason to weigh in on who is making education policy and what policies they are making, particularly with control of the Senate in play in this November’s elections.

A key policy of the Obama administration has been granting school districts waivers to relieve them of rules put in place by the No Child Left Behind law of the Bush administration.

In place of target dates for math and reading proficiency that have drawn educators' complaints, Obama directed his administration to grant schools waivers that gave schools leeway in meeting the NCLB standards. In exchange, the schools are required to adopt Common Core or other federal standards, focus on lowest performing schools and implement teacher and educator evaluations.

Over 42 states participating account for 70 percent of the nation’s Latino schoolchildren, which number about 8.2 million, said Roberto Rodriguez, Obama’s education policy adviser.

Those changes are regularly the subject of debate and controversy. Some states have dumped the plans they adopted to get the waiver. Rodriguez said it’s too early to know how well the generally two-year-old waivers are working. But also in place are School Improvement Program grants that have provided $2 million a year for “rigorous intervention” in low performing schools in all 50 states.

“We are seeing some real encouraging results in student engagement and greater student attendance and some leading results around improved performance in those schools,” Rodriguez said.

“That work plays out across the country, along with other important reforms," said Rodriguez, who pointed to efforts to provide better teachers in the classroom, focus more on low-performing schools and provide more resources and more efforts to turn around performance. "All of those things have contributed to the progress underway in our education system for our Latino community,” he said.

The growth of the Latino school population has also helped. Successes and failures of the population are far more visible, said Patricia Gandara, a research professor of the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education.

“If it is a small population you can overlook it. If it is large and seriously affecting graduation rates, you have to do something about it. In a lot of areas, schools have had to take this seriously and implement the programs to affect the schools," Gandara said.

The community too has been getting the message, and there has been an increased "beating the drum" of the need to stay in school, she said.

Some have credited a changed economy in which it is tougher to get a job without a diploma. Gomperts said it's tough to prove that is the case, but he backed Gandara's argument that "there is a cultural thing that happened," a sea change in attitudes about finishing high school and in understanding the many reasons behind students leaving school and targeting those issues. Issues of equity in schools, making sure children of all racial background attend well performing schools, also have come into greater focus in recent years.

There are different ways of looking at school dropouts. Gomperts said his group focuses on graduation rates. But even there, there has been drastic improvement for Latinos, with 76 percent graduating, up from 60 percent just eight years ago.

America’s Promise Alliance studies how many young people go to what have been called “dropout factories,” where less than 60 percent of freshman graduate three years later. Ten years ago, 39 percent of Latino students attended such schools, said Gomperts. That number is now at about 17 percent, he said.

He named targeted school reforms and increased student support as drivers behind those improvements.

“Schools that have been historically bad are getting better and we’re paying more attention to the needs of students,” Gomperts said.

Not everyone believes the statistics.

Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor at Cal State University, thinks the dropout and graduation data may be overstating the success because schools now are reporting data in a different way and have “gotten really savvy at hiding students.”

Gomperts said results seen in Texas have raised some questions. “Nobody knows the answer, but there are reasons to furrow your brow and explore further,” he said.

In the end, Gomperts said he considers his own two children who are now in their 20s. They were decent students and involved in soccer and music. He said it was learning clarinet that led to their success.

"I have no idea what works," he said. "It's the totality of things."