Deseret Morning News graphic

Utah's ethnic minority students are dropping out of school far more often than their white peers — something minority advocates have believed for years but not had, until now, statewide numbers to prove.

Eighty-six percent of Utah's class of 2002 students graduated from high school, according to graduation rate figures furnished by the State Office of Education.

White students had an 88.4 percent graduation rate, followed by Asians at 84.4 percent and Pacific Islanders at 76.1 percent.

By contrast, American Indian students posted a mere 67 percent graduation rate. And numbers shrink to slightly less than 65 percent for black and Hispanic students.

Advocates for ethnic minority students are both pleased and concerned about the information.

"In a twisted way, we're happy to see only 64.7 percent of Hispanics are graduating, because we know it's more accurate and reflective of our community," says Michael Clara, chairman of the Coalition of Minorities Advisory Committee to the State Board of Education. "We want to see the real numbers. That's the only way we'll know how much we need to improve."

The State Office of Education for the first time this year calculated dropout rates in a new way: By tracking a group of students over time.

The technique, required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, looked at the class of 2002 as it made its way through 10th, 11th and 12th grades, added up the number of students who left school over those years, then reported the total 2002 graduation rate.

The new system also breaks down numbers for ethnicity and gender. In the class of 2002, 85 percent of males and 87 percent of females graduated, state numbers show.

Before this year, dropout rates were calculated by "event," a method that may underreport the data.

The old method showed a mere 2.8 percent of Utah students dropped out of school in the 2001-02 school year, said Mark Peterson, spokesman for the State Office of Education.

That method — still required by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics — counts the number of seventh- through 12th-graders who drop out in a single year, regardless of grade, Peterson said. That number is divided by the number of all students enrolled in seventh through 12th grades, providing a smaller statistic.

Neither statistical breakdown represents inaccurate numbers — they just present different camera angles, if you will, that provide narrower or broader snapshots of Utah students.

No national graduation rate has been calculated under the new method, Peterson said. Graduation rates for students who are low-income, disabled or have limited English proficiency will be available in 2007, the state education office reports.

But to give perspective, Utah's graduation rate last year was ranked 10th in the nation by the Manhattan Institute.

Also, Utah's overall 86 percent graduation rate is slightly above its No Child Left Behind goal of 85.7 percent.

At the same time, however, Hispanics, blacks, American Indians and Pacific Islanders would have a long way to go before reaching that benchmark.

Student advocates now, however, can use solid information to address the matter.

"We're still in the diagnostic stage. . . , (but this data) gives communities the opportunity to look at solutions," Clara said. "We feel each of these ethnicities have different reasons why they're dropping out."