The number of Hispanic students graduating from high school is rapidly rising.
More than 70 percent of Latino students graduated on time during the 2009-2010 school year, according to data released this week by the Education Department. That's a jump of 10 points in just five years.
"[It's] promising that high school graduation rates are up for all ethnic groups in 2010 -- especially for Hispanics, whose graduation rate has jumped almost 10 points since 2006," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "At the same time, our high school dropout rate is still unsustainably high for a knowledge-based economy and still unacceptably high in our African-American, Latino, and Native-American communities."
The precise reason for the increase is tough to determine, but a number of factors may have contributed to the higher graduation rate.
According to David Thomas, a spokesman for the Education Department, there hasn't been a study of "causal effects," but the state of the economy may play a role.
"Traditionally there has been shown, in economic literature, a correlation between the economy and graduation/dropout rates," Thomas wrote in an email. "The commonly attributed assumption is that fewer students will drop out if there are not sufficient employment options for high school dropouts."
However, the struggling state of the economy could also negatively impact graduation rates.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, students who drop out of school often do so because they need to support their families, including parents and siblings. Hispanic unemployment has remained around 10 percent for months, and students with parents out of work may feel pressure to quit their studies and find a job.
"Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of all 16- to 25-year-old survey respondents who cut their education short during or right after high school say they did so because they had to support their family," according to the center. "Other reasons include poor English skills (cited by about half of respondents who cut short their education), a dislike of school and a feeling that they don't need more education for the careers they want (each cited by about four-in-ten respondents who cut their education short)."
Delia Pompa, senior vice president of programs at the National Council of La Raza, who specializes in education, says emphasis on education within the Hispanic community has played a key role in increasing Latino graduation rates.
"Because of the advocacy of the community, we see programs more targeted to Hispanics," Pompa said, noting that parent-outreach programs have been particularly effective in convincing both students and parents that graduating from high school and attending college are realistic possibilities.
"If you look at parents and their dreams and wishes, Hispanic parents have seen high school graduation as the pinnacle," she said. "Parents do believe in their kids, they just don't always know how to help them get to high school graduation and then beyond that, to college graduation."
Pompa also credits advancements in educational assessment with increasing graduation rates, partially by increasing accountability.
No Child Left Behind, the controversial test-based education policy enacted under President George W. Bush, looked for the first time at the performance of different demographics, and not just overall school or state performance.
"It put a spotlight on particular subgroups," Pompa said.
She added that as the number of Hispanic students has increased, states and districts have likely felt more pressure for the demographic to perform well, and they are probably more likely to spend a higher percentage of resources within the existing budget on helping Latino students meet state and national standards.
That might mean outreach to Spanish-speaking parents or additional help for English-language learners.
However, while the numbers are encouraging, Latinos are still less likely to graduate in four years than some of their peers.
The overall graduation rate was 78.2 percent in 2009-10, the highest level since 1974. Asians and Pacific Islanders had a four-year graduation rate of 93.5 percent, followed by whites at 83 percent. American Indian students were slightly less likely to graduate in four years than Hispanics, with a four-year graduation rate of 69.1 percent, while blacks came in at 66.1 percent.
Efforts by educators and leaders within the Hispanic community over a long period of time have begun to pay off, Pompa said, but it needs to continue, and the community needs to look beyond high school graduation at ways to make college graduation attainable.
A large part of that has to do with offering financial support, Pompa said. The idea of a life saddled by loan repayments deters students, she said, and Hispanic students are more likely to have other financial obligations, such as supporting family members, than some other demographics. Simply explaining how the college application process works is important, as well, particularly for first-generation college attendees with parents who may not know how to help their children apply.
The Hispanic community, Pompa said, hasn't "conquered the high school challenge," but it needs to look beyond that, too, and community members need to continue to emphasize the importance of education.
"It's like a drumbeat," she said.