Minority students are the majority in Arizona's classrooms, but they lag greatly behind their white peers when it comes to donning a cap and gown.
A study released May 13 by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center looks at graduation rates for the Class of 2007, the most recent data available for Arizona students.
That year, the four-year graduation rate for minorities was 65.3 percent, while whites graduated at a rate of 81 percent.
During that school year, 54 percent of students enrolled at all grade levels in Arizona's public schools were minorities and the overall graduation rate for the state's public school system was 73.4 percent.
Minorities have been graduating more than in the past, with their four-year graduation rate rising from 58.2 percent in 1993 to 65.3 percent in 2007. But the overall graduation rate for the state has also been rising at that same time, from 68 percent for the Class of 1993 to 73.4 percent for the Class of 2007.
Nationwide, the average four-year graduation rate was 88 percent in 2007.
The study is the policy analysis center's fourth look at education in Arizona. It includes information on dropout rates, access to college and scholarships, AIMS testing and more.
The rates for the Class of 2008 should be out later this year, according to the Arizona Department of Education. What's already known, however, is that the minority population in classrooms continues to grow.
In October 2009, almost 56 percent of students enrolled in Arizona's schools were minorities.
Efforts are underway to improve graduation rates for all Arizona students, and at least one lawmaker said the answer may be in giving students more of a challenge.
This year, Rep. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, introduced the Move on When Ready legislation that creates a new route to a diploma for Arizona seniors. The governor signed the bill into law, and the first diploma could be offered in 2013.
Students who can pass rigorous college-readiness exams will be able to receive a diploma as early as after their 10th-grade year. Then they can take advanced courses at their high schools, enroll in community college courses at their schools or take a career and technical training path.
"Things are changing in Arizona to address this," Crandall said of the minority graduation rate.
School districts are changing their focus from "minimizing failure" to preparing students for college and career readiness, Crandall said.
"What comes along with that is a drop in the dropout rates," Crandall said Friday. "We've been telling kids forever to stay in high school. Now, start earlier and tell them you've got to go to college. That rigor does more to decrease the dropout rate."
Crandall was recently in Washington D.C., where he was co-chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' Task Force on School Dropout Prevention.
"Three weeks ago, it hit home. You don't catch kids up by slowing them down. We think kids who drop out are dumb, so we tell them to take this remedial class or take two semesters to complete Algebra I," he said. "It exacerbates the problem. They get bored. They're not challenged so they drop out."
Mesa Unified School District, the largest in the state and one with a large minority population, has been recently recognized as having the best graduation rates of any large district in the country. The district's most recent data, for the Class of 2009, shows a better than 80 percent four-year graduation rate.
The district goes to great efforts to track down students who don't show up to school, said Joe O'Reilly, executive director for student achievement support. More than two-thirds of the students are "status unknown," O'Reilly said. Many move to another district or school but never request transcripts.
In some cases, the district tries to find students through former classmates or a parent's work phone number. The district can also work with the state to track students who may have enrolled in another public school.
But there are also efforts to keep the kids, through a variety of educational options.
"We have ways for students to make up credits through online instruction," O'Reilly said. "We have the alternative schools that help."
Four-year Graduation Rates, Arizona Public Schools, Class of 2007*
Ethnicity % graduated # graduated # in cohort
Asian 85.5 1,640 1,919
Black 72.3 2,761 3,818
Hispanic 64.7 16,067 24,818
American Indian 55.0 2,480 5,160
White 81 30,046 36,947
Total 73.4 53,354 72,662
* Most recent data available, Arizona Department of Education