Davis tops large U.S. districts in grad rate

Imbalance: Utah's overall rankings are strong, but the state's Latinas lag
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A new report shows Utah's Davis School District has the highest high school graduation rate among the nation's 100 largest school districts, with Utah ranking 14th overall.

But Utah's graduation rate for Latinas is second lowest in the nation.

The report from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank interested in education reform, shows Utah's high school graduation rate is a landscape of extremes.

The New York City-based institute calculates Utah's graduation rate at 77 percent - 14th highest in the U.S. and above the national average of 70 percent. Graduation rates for Utah's four largest districts - Jordan, Granite, Alpine and Davis - rank in the top 12 of the nation's 100 largest districts, says the report.

The downside is that only 52 percent of Utah Latina students graduate; only Colorado's rate is worse. The report does not list a graduation rate for Utah Latino males because of a statistical aberration, but a co-author believes the number is considerably lower than for females.

On average, Utah boys are graduating at a rate 5 percent lower than girls, and statistics suggest the gender gap is even wider among minority students.

The gap echoes a national trend defined in the report: graduation rates across the nation differ dramatically by race and ethnicity, and are lowest for boys. Nationally, fewer than half of Latino and African American males graduate from high school.

Andrea Flores, a sophomore at Salt Lake City's West High School, has Latino friends of both genders who have dropped out of school. Boys leave because families need the income they earn by working, and because jobs seem more attractive than sitting in schoolrooms, she says.

"They fall behind, and decide to work because it's easier. They like the money, and they want cars."

But Flores knows many girls who are "giving up," too.

"They think having a boyfriend is more important than their education," she says. "Some get pregnant, or stop focusing on studies as much as they should be."

Flores' family has been in the United States for 20 years, and most of her friends are not recent arrivals. She said a language barrier is not the main reason kids don't succeed at school.

"Teenagers aren't attracted to school," says Flores. "Kids should be inspired. I'm not sure what the schools could do except help the parents. Most parents don't understand why it is so important to get an education. They focus on the 'now' instead of on the 'later.' "

Judy Park, director of assessment for the Utah State Office of Education, said graduation rates for Latinos are improving, but adds, "we've got a long way to go."

"We are focusing on standard-based education, working on professional development and making use of technology, " Park said. "A lot of effort is going into it, but it's going to take some time."

USOE's graduation rate is higher than those reported by Manhattan Institute - 85 percent vs. the institute's 77 percent.

Jay P. Greene, co-author of the Manhattan Institute report, contends that graduation rates across the nation have long been inflated, inconsistent and unreliable. Support for that premise came from the National Governor's Association, which released a report last year saying states' graduation data "cannot accurately account for students as they progress through high school."

Forty-five state governors, including Utah's, signed an agreement to develop a formula to standardize and improve the accuracy of graduation rates.

The new method will make "minor changes" in the way Utah figures its rates, Park said. Accuracy will improve as Utah uses a new identifier system that tracks students even if they move from district to district, she said. For the first time, the state will know if students have dropped out, or merely moved.

The graduation rate is also likely to be affected by Utah's exit exam, the Utah Basic Skills Competency Test. The class of 2006 was the first whose graduation eligibility was affected by student performance on UBSCT.

"Are kids dropping out so they don't have to take it? Are they dropping out in discouragement when they take it once and fail? Will we be issuing fewer diplomas? It's too soon to know," Park said.

Greene, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute and a professor of education reform at Arkansas University, doesn't mind applauding Utah's general success.

"Some of Utah's districts are among the highest-performing large districts in the country," Greene said. "But while Utah does do very well, it is lagging with respect to Hispanic students, and is still having a harder time producing success for boys than for girls.

"What it suggests is that we have to think of more effective strategies for ring boys. Differences across ethnic groups might be partially attributable to home life, but boys and girls come from the same homes. This difference has more to do with what schools are doing. We need to think about how we can restructure schools or adopt new techniques that more effectively reach boys."

The new unique identifier system will make it easier to track graduation rates out by gender and ethnicity, Raphael said.

Andrea Flores says that when Latina graduates are counted in two years, her name will be on a diploma. She credits the inspiration she draws from her hard-working father.

"In spite of all the difficulties, he tried to get an education, learn the language and better himself," Flores says. "Constantly he reminds me that the only way to get ahead is to get an education."