Hispanic students appear to have bucked the trend of stagnant academic growth in U.S. history, civics, and geography, according to the latest test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).
The 2014 NAEP report showed flat academic progress for students as a whole. But Hispanic students as a group had made gains in U.S. history and geography since 2010 and in all three subject areas since the 1990s, when the first tests were administered. White students were the only other racial group with that long-term trend.
Education Week asked some experts why.
First, just to be clear, there is no way to definitively answer that question. NAEP offers data, but not explanation.
But experts pointed to good teaching strategies, better use of disaggregated data, and increased focus on policies for English-language learners as possible contributing factors.
“It’s hard to say why the scores have risen (but) there has been a lot of attention to English-learners over the years to make sure they get intervention to get them to where they need to be,” said Allison Horowitz, a K-12 policy analyst at the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization that aims to close the achievement gap between low-income or minority-race students and theirmore-advantaged peers.
It’s worth noting that the report, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” comes amid increased scrutiny of history and civics education. As Education Week has reported, 17 states are considering legislation that would require students to take a citizenship test in order to graduate from high school. The move has drawn criticism.
Meanwhile, some states are balking at an overhaul of the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum framework.
Educators and experts have long worried that social studies education is being pushed to the back burner in favor of more talked-about subjects such as math, English, and the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines. The overall results of the 2014 NAEP tests underscored that concern.
Also, the achievement gap remains. “My greater concern is that these gaps still exist,” said Michelle Herczog, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “Hispanic and black students are faring much poorer than white and Asian students, which is a cause for concern.”
But the gains among Hispanic students was considered a “bright spot” by NAEP officials, and the gains weren’t just limited to U.S. history, civics, and geography.
Hispanic students also showed academic gains on the NAEP math and reading assessments, which were administered in other years.
“So it’s been a consistent story across the board,” said Horowitz.
Kathleen Leos, the CEO at the Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, attributes the improvements to three key educational strategies being employed in classrooms today: building on prior knowledge, scaffolding, and teaching vocabulary within the context of the content area.
She used this example to describe the latter strategy:
“If you say table in geography it’s different than in science. Students have to learn not only the word, but also the context,” she said. “So it [the gains among Hispanic students] says that teachers are learning how to teach complicated vocabulary in the context of their content area. There are multiple meanings to those words and [students] applied and inferred it correctly.”
She said the strategies work across the board with all students, not just subgroups. But for Hispanic students particularly, the key is language. “Teachers are trained to deliver content knowledge and language proficiency at that high level simultaneously. More and more teachers are learning how to do that.”
She also noted educators are becoming more specialized, for example, they may be specifically trained to teach students for whom English is not their native language.
Experts also gave credit to the No Child Left Behind legislation, which succeeded in prompting the education system to look separately at subgroups of students and to use that disaggregated data to improve student achievement.
Image is from the 2014 NAEP report.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.