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Hispanic drop-out rate up sharply

State survey finds levels up for other minorities

By Scott S. Greenberger, Globe Staff, 8/15/2000

The annual drop-out rate for Hispanic students in Massachusetts - already the highest of any ethnic group - increased ''significantly'' in the most recent state survey, said Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll.

The survey, released over the weekend, shows that the Hispanic drop-out rate shot up to 9.8 percent in 1998-99 from 8.2 percent in 1997-98.

Other minorities also experienced higher drop-out rates, although the increases were not as drastic: The rate for black students went up to 6.7 percent from 6.1 percent, and the Asian-American rate increased to 3.6 percent from 3.5 percent. The rate among white students declined to 2.5 percent from 2.6 percent.

''Anytime the drop-out rate goes up it's very concerning,'' said Driscoll, who couldn't pinpoint a reason for the increase.

''It's more and more of a problem for a dropout to succeed than ever before, so clearly our interest is to try to do as much as we can to keep kids in school. We have an awful lot of factors in society working against us.''

Without any improvement in the annual drop-out numbers, 33 percent of Hispanic students in the class of 2002 would drop out before graduating, according to state projections. The state also projects 24 percent of black students, 14 percent of Asian-American students, and 10 percent of white students won't graduate.

''Any increase above where we're at is at once dramatic and alarming,'' said Jose Duran of the Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, a nonprofit Massachusetts group that helps Hispanic students interested in going to college

''This is totally unacceptable,'' Duran said. ''It's not good news for the public school system, but it's not good for the economy either. These are individuals who will go into the labor force. This has got to be alarming for the business community as well.''

In accordance with federal guidelines, Massachusetts defines a dropout as a high school student who leaves school before graduation and does not return by Oct. 1 of the following school year. Students who transfer to another school are not counted.

As high as the drop-out numbers in Massachusetts are, they are low compared to the nationwide rate. In 1997, 25.3 percent of Hispanics age 16-24 dropped out of high school, compared with 13.4 percent of blacks and 7.6 percent of whites, according to a federal study released in March.

The study found that nearly half of foreign-born Hispanic students dropped out, compared with 16 percent of US-born Hispanics.

In releasing the study, US Education Secretary Richard Riley called for the creation of 1,000 dual-language schools in the next five years. The schools would instruct children in English and in a native language.

In some states, such as Texas, critics have argued that the introduction of a ''high-stakes'' standardized test has spurred struggling students to leave school.

Last year researchers at the Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at UMass-Boston who have analyzed Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores broken down by ethnicity, predicted that requiring students to pass MCAS to graduate will result in large numbers of Latinos and blacks dropping out of school.

''If kids have failed the eighth grade test they may feel they don't have a good shot at doing better in the 10th grade, and may drop out before having to go through another failure and putting out the effort to go through high school,'' said Miren Uriarte, Gaston's interim director.

She also fears Massachusetts may follow what she believes is a pattern in other states: principals and teachers, under increasing pressure to raise scores, engaging in the ''opposite of creaming.''

''The kids that are weaker may get targeted and pushed into other programs or get counseled out [of high school],'' Uriarte said.

The state, Gaston researchers said, should have closed the achievement gap before deciding to make the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam a graduation requirement.

But Driscoll dismissed the possibility that MCAS is fueling the high drop-out rates.

''I don't attribute this to MCAS at all,'' he said. ''People want to blame MCAS for anything.''

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 8/15/2000. © Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.