Latino Students' Math Scores Climb While Family Income Drops

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The math achievement of Latinos improved from the early 1970s to the early 1990s nationwide despite the simultaneous shrinkage in the family income for that group and the rise in Latino child poverty, a study by a California researcher shows.

The results of the study, presented here at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual meeting this month, conflict with earlier research and challenge what the author argues is a widely held assumption among educators that the math achievement of students from lower income levels improves only as their socioeconomic condition improves.

While studies of Mexican-Americans have found that math achievement goes up as socioeconomic status improves--or that there is no such relationship--this study found that Latino students as a whole did better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math in 1992 than they had in 1973. At the same time, U.S. Census Bureau data, unadjusted for inflation, show the median annual family income of Latinos shrank by $1,957, as the median family income of non-Hispanic whites rose $3,469. Between 1977 and 1992, the rate of Latino children in poverty rose 11.1 percentage points, while child poverty for whites increased 5.3 percentage points.

Not only did Hispanic 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds register gains on the long-term-trend NAEP in math from 1973 to 1992, but those gains were, for secondary students, more dramatic than the increases registered by non-Hispanic white students, who started out with higher scores.

For 13-year-olds, for example, the average score of white students increased only 5 points between 1973 and 1992, rising from 274 to 279 on the 500-point NAEP scale. The performance of Hispanic students that age went up, on average, from 239 to 259, a 20-point gain that helped narrow the gap between the two groups.

The study's author, Luis Ortiz-Franco, an associate professor of math at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., theorized that the disparity between his results and those of other studies could be explained by differences in how the studies were conducted. For example, his study focused on Latinos as a whole instead of on one or more subgroups, such as Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, or Cubans.

Or, Mr. Ortiz-Franco told attendees at the April 2-4 gathering, the results of his study could be explained by social factors, such as rising Latino education levels or parent involvement. Federal data show similar percentages of Latino and white students have parents who check their homework, and Latino 8th graders taking NAEP were also more likely than their white peers to say their parents limited their television viewing and visited their classes.

"It is quite possible that these family characteristics had a stronger influence than income on the mathematics achievement of Latino students," Mr. Ortiz-Franco writesin a paper on the study.

His research is to appear in a forthcoming book, Changing the Faces of Mathematics: Perspectives on Latinos, to be published by the NCTM.

First-year teachers have a hard time putting the voluntary national standards for mathematics into practice in their classrooms, a small study by Illinois teacher-educators has found.

 Victoria Boller LaBerge

Victoria Boller LaBerge, an assistant professor, and Linda R. Sons, a professor in the mathematical sciences department at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, looked at the self-reported classroom practices of first-year teachers who had graduated from their teacher education program in 1995. Of the 22 graduates, 12 completed questionnaires about their practices. The results were not encouraging.

"Despite the fact that these [first-year teachers] completed a program specifically designed to support and encourage its graduates in implementing the NCTM standards, by their own report, the [teachers] studied were not successful in achieving this goal," the authors write in their report.

Asked how often they used particular activities endorsed by the math teachers' group, half or more of the respondents to the questionnaire--all teaching in secondary schools--said they "seldom" or "never" used hand-on materials, or so-called manipulatives, and seldom or never used computers or had their students write about math. Half or more of the dozen respondents said their students engaged in the more traditional activities of working on problems from textbooks or taking notes during teacher presentations.

Of the various barriers to implementing the standards the teachers cited, seven of 12 mentioned time constraints. The same number cited a lack of resources, including calculators and computers. In an interview with the researchers, one of the first-year teachers mentioned the pressure to get through the curricular material: "If I do [try to implement the standards] I'll be further behind." The new teachers also pointed out their lack of planning time and reported they often had ideas for instructional activities but were not certain how to implement them.

Sometimes you just have to ask. That's what Hazel H. Orth, a calculus teacher at Langley High School in McLean, Va., outside Washington, found out when she approached the famous parent of one of her students about giving a talk at the NCTM conference.

 Justice Antonin Scalia

The reply came on official U.S. Supreme Court stationery: Yes, Justice Antonin Scalia would be pleased to give a speech on the Constitution. With obvious pride, Ms. Orth, who has taught three of the nine-member Scalia brood, recalled his reason: "You never said no to any of my children; how could I say no to you?"

In introducing him, Ms. Orth said she sees Mr. Scalia "much more as a parent than as a Supreme Court justice."

The jurist had kind words for many members of the audience: "If Ihad to pick the profession in which I thought you could have the most influence upon people, it's teaching, especially high school teaching."


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