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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Varying data leave incomplete picture of immigrants' progress

By HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News
June 9, 2008

Researchers have a good idea how many school-age children were born outside the U.S.

As for how these young immigrants fare in classrooms – how quickly they learn English; how often they repeat a grade; how many graduate on time – details are murky. That's because, across the country, school districts vary widely in the information they collect, making it very hard to draw useful comparisons or study the progress of students.

"The data collected by schools is simply not particularly nuanced, especially for immigrants," said Richard Fry, a researcher at the Pew Hispanic Center, a national nonprofit. "You don't know where they were born. You don't know how long they've been here. You don't know anything about their parents."

The U.S. Census gives an overview of the immigrant population by counting foreign-born residents, no matter how long they've been in the U.S. Its most recent survey, from 2006, found that 7 percent of Texas school-age children – some 325,000 kids – are foreign-born. The rate is around 9 percent in Dallas-Fort Worth. Most come from Mexico.

But if you want details, good luck. School districts aren't required to ask students what country they were born in or when they moved to the U.S.

Dallas ISD, for one, voluntarily collects that information through an intake center for new immigrants and refugees. The center also asks families how much schooling their children have had to help place them academically.

Dallas also tracks the total number of students born outside the U.S., but all districts don't keep such detailed records.

There are other problems. For example, not everyone defines "immigrant" the same way.

The Texas Education Agency uses the federal Education Department's definition: a foreign-born student who has attended U.S. schools less than three years. Once that student hits year four, the immigrant label disappears.

So what? Well, it matters if you care how many foreign-born students graduate or drop out from Texas public schools.

The state reports that of 3,165 immigrants in the Class of 2006, just half graduated in four years, and nearly a third dropped out.

But those statistics don't tell the whole story.

Take two Mexican-born students who enroll in Texas schools in ninth grade. The first graduates four years later – but doesn't count as an immigrant because she has exceeded the three-year mark. The second student drops out after ninth grade – and because he was still considered an immigrant, he shows up as an immigrant dropout.

Another problem is that some immigrants, especially teenagers, never enroll in a U.S. school. The census counts them as dropouts. Schools don't, because they never "dropped in" to begin with.

The rate of immigration has slowed in the Dallas area in recent years, because, experts speculate, of greater border enforcement and a decline in construction jobs. Schools also have seen that slowing. Dallas, for example, added 2,240 immigrants this school year, down from 4,730 new immigrants in 2001-02.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa agrees that tighter border controls have probably had an effect, along with crackdowns on illegal immigrants in Farmers Branch, Irving and other places. But he questions whether the drop is really as steep as the data show. School records – such as Census Bureau surveys – rely on self-reporting, and he suspects some families aren't identifying themselves as immigrants, regardless of their legal status. He predicts that will continue.

"I think people are going to be more scared of being deported," he said.

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