A study released Tuesday indicates Arizona might not have the nation’s worst high school dropout rate after all — a finding educators and business leaders say could have a significant impact on economic development.
The Arizona Center for Public Policy compared Arizona to Texas, which has similar student demographics and economic interests, but is known for a low dropout rate.
In 2001-02, Texas reported a dropout rate of 0.9 percent, while Arizona reported a rate of 7.1 percent. But when Arizona’s definition of "dropout" and its calculation methods are applied to Texas, the Texas rate ranges from 5.2 percent to 7.1 percent.
"Public schools in Arizona are getting unfairly judged, and it’s just a matter of the way numbers are calculated," said Ken James, principal of Gilbert’s Highland High School.
National studies usually list Arizona as having the worst dropout rate in the country. One study, the annual Kids Count report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, gives Arizona a 17 percent dropout rate.
But the Kids Count rate is based on a phone survey that counts any high school dropouts living in the state — even if they moved here from somewhere else and never attended an Arizona school, said David Garcia, senior research analyst for the center for public policy.
The Kids Count report and other studies that rank states can damage Arizona’s ability to attract businesses, said Jim Zaharis, vice president of Greater Phoenix Leadership.
Zaharis, former superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District, is hopeful Garcia’s study will help change how national rankings are done.
"From a business point of view, we’d like to take this further in that we would like to look at states Arizona competes with and make sure we are comparing the same thing," Zaharis said.
Arizona and Texas use the same basic formula to calculate dropouts: The total number of dropouts during the school year divided by the total number of students enrolled at any time during the year. The difference occurs because each state has different methods and standards for verifying that a student dropped out.
For instance, Texas does not verify what happens to students who leave the state. Using Arizona’s process, Garcia’s study determined that Texas’ dropout rate is 5.2 percent if it is assumed that all the students who left the state transferred to another school; the rate is 7.1 percent if it is assumed that all the students who left Texas were dropouts.