School & District Management

As the U.S. Hispanic Population Soars, Raising Performance Becomes Vital

By Robert C. Johnston — March 15, 2000 5 min read

The numbers are startling: Fewer than two Hispanic students in 10 score at the “proficient” level or above on a national reading test—well below their white and Asian-American peers. Hispanic children are less likely to go to preschool and more likely to drop out of high school.

And, by 2030, they will make up one out of every four students in the nation’s K-12 schools. As Hispanics’ share of the school-age population—and of the U.S. population overall—grows, so too will the pressure to narrow the academic-performance gap.

A failure to do so, many educators and Hispanic leaders say, will have troubling consequences not only for those children but for the country as a whole.

“Increasingly, we’ll depend on [Hispanics’] ability to produce goods and services,” said Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group in Washington. “If we don’t do a good job of educating them, our economic security, our standard of living, our ability to support retirees is going to diminish.”

To be sure, Hispanic students have made modest but steady gains in recent years, often outpacing African-Americans on local and national academic measures.

But much room for improvement remains. For example, on the 1998 reading test given by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 16 percent of Hispanic 8th graders scored at the proficient level or above, compared with 45 percent of white students and 40 percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders. For black students, the proportion was 12 percent.

Loosely Defined Category

“Hispanics” are in fact a diverse collection of groups. Federal statistics from 1997 show that 64 percent of Hispanics were Mexican-American, 13 percent were from Central and South America or the Caribbean, 11 percent were Puerto Rican, and 5 percent were of Cuban origin. Seven percent were classified as “other.”

For educators and policymakers, such diversity complicates efforts to come up with broad plans for dealing with the achievement gap. For example, Cubans, who began arriving in the United States in large numbers after their country’s 1959 revolution, generally have had stronger educational backgrounds than those of more recent immigrants from Central America of the past three decades.

But when looked at as a whole, Hispanics show some troubling trends. According to 1998 federal data, a much higher proportion—29 percent—of Hispanics ages 16 to 24 were not in school and had not finished high school, compared with 8 percent for whites, 14 percent for blacks, and 4 percent for Asian/Pacific Islanders.

In addition, the Hispanic dropout rate for 16- to 24-year-olds born outside the United States was 44 percent, vs. just 7.2 percent for non-Hispanics, according to a 1999 report from the National Center for Education Statistics. The report suggests the dropout rate is high because many Hispanic immigrants arrive beyond typical high school age, emigrate solely to work, or are deterred by language barriers.

Another view is that the increasing use of tests to determine whether students are promoted to the next grade or graduate may be forcing out of school a disproportionate number of students with limited English proficiency.

Tests have “become door closers rather than door openers,” contended Blandina Cardenas, the director of the Center for Hispanic Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Large assessments are primitive,” she added. “I’m not sure they’re the tools we need to understand learning potential of any student at any level.”

Ms. Cardenas concedes, however, that the state’s test-driven accountability system, which includes school and district ratings, has at least one advantage for minority students: “It has forced school districts to bring to light the patterns of underachievement that had been accepted as the way things were supposed to be for too long.”


Language is inextricably linked to test success, and may be the most academically significant and politically contentious issues for students of Spanish-speaking backgrounds and the schools they attend. And it represents the major difference between efforts to reduce the achievement gap among African-Americans and policies directed toward Hispanics.

California has taken a controversial and closely watched step toward addressing language proficiency in schools. Californians in 1998 passed a ballot measure that barred most bilingual education in public schools and replaced it with English-only instruction.

While it’s too early to fully assess whether the approach is making a difference, Ms. Cardenas worries that the language debate obscures other issues. “The things that hold back Latinos have more to do with economics and disparities in resources,” she argued.

A 1998 review of federal data by the Council of La Raza found that between 1990 and 1996, median family incomes fell 7 percent for Hispanics, while climbing 1 percent for non-Hispanic whites and 3 percent for blacks. In 1998, more than half of all white and black 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool, compared with fewer than 40 percent of Hispanics, the group reported recently.

In spite of such trends, observers note that Hispanic students have inched up overall in many categories on the NAEP exams, and have narrowed the gap with white students on some state- mandated exams, notably in Texas.

Increasing those gains is a priority in many states as well as for the federal government, and President Clinton has launched a White House Initiative on Educational Achievement for Hispanic Americans to study the issue.

Sarita Brown, the project’s executive director, said parents must play a vital role in any solutions. She faults well-intentioned people for a perception that Hispanic parents do not value education as much as those from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Perpetuating that idea, she said, allows schools to escape responsibility for the failure of Hispanic students.

“Parents don’t need a public relations campaign to tell them their kids need a good education,” she declared. “They need solid information about what a good education is, what their rights are, and how to access that information.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as As the U.S. Hispanic Population Soars, Raising Performance Becomes Vital


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