Equity & Diversity

Latino Students’ Gains Threatened by the Pandemic, Analysis Finds

By Ileana Najarro — July 11, 2022 3 min read
Teen student with book in hands, reading it, in double exposure as a concept of reading
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Latinos students have made academic progress over the last two to three decades—including rising high school graduation rates and enrollment in post-secondary education. But policymakers must now work to address setbacks to this progress caused by the pandemic.

That’s one of the key takeaways from a new report by UnidosUS, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, on the state of education for Latino students.

Between 2009 and 2020 the percentage of Latino public school students increased from 22 to 28 percent, according to federal data. They represent the largest ethnic group to increase in public school enrollment in that time.

In 2019, Latino 4th and 8th grade students scored higher in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than they did did in 1992, according to the report. The on-time high school graduation rate for Latino students increased from 71 percent in the 2010-11 school year to nearly 82 percent in 2018-19. And Latino students’ enrollment in postsecondary programs saw a 384 percent increase between 1990 and 2019.

The report notes that this growing student population is also increasingly diverse. About 94 percent of Latino children under the age of 18 are U.S.-born citizens. Latino students can trace their heritage to a variety of Latin American countries. More than three quarters of the English-learner student population are Latino; many self-identify as Black; and a growing number of Latinx young adults also identify within the LGBTQ community.

Despite the diversity within the Latino student population and the gains made over the years, the UnidosUS report found key commonalities policymakers can draw on to address the challenges these students face.

“We still have educational gaps affecting all kinds of Latino students, so there’s a shared aspiration because we have shared struggles with educational equity,” said Eric Rodriguez, a UnidosUS senior vice president.

Specifically, the report found that between 2019 and 2021, Latino students in 3rd through 8th grade saw greater declines than their non-Latino white peers on interim math and reading assessments. About a third of Latino families didn’t have connectivity at home prior to the pandemic, creating logistical issues during remote learning. There are early signs of declines in the national high school graduation rate for Latinos and in their enrollment in postsecondary programs. And English-learner students faced outsized challenges to learning during the start of the pandemic.

Some of the policy recommendations to address these challenges include:

  • Actionable data and student-centered accountability: Policymakers should engage with students, parents and the civil rights community when shaping the future of assessments and accountability.
  • Equitable funding to support low-income students: Majority-Latino school districts aren’t spending nearly as much as they should to improve students’ reading and math performance, compared to districts with minority Latino student populations. UnidosUS calls for tripling funding for Title I, Part A—which provides extra services for disadvantaged students—and ensuring that Title I funds are targeted toward the highest poverty school districts. Districts’ COVID-19 education relief funds should be properly allocated to students in need of pandemic recovery support. Funding is especially key for Latino students attending schools in districts with less funds due to a historic census undercount.
  • A new approach to English-learners that builds on their assets: UnidosUs calls for increasing funding to the federal formula grant program intended to support English-learners in every state and U.S. territory to $2 billion. (The program received $831 million in fiscal year 2022.) It also encourages policymakers to look into investing in asset-based approaches to education, such as dual-language programs.
  • Keeping students on track for postsecondary education: The organization also calls on policymakers to invest in grant programs that provide financial support for students pursuing postsecondary education including doubling the maximum federal Pell Grant.

The hope is that these policy recommendations can influence policy decisions and funding priorities at the federal, state and local levels, said Amalia Chamorro, the director of education policy at UnidosUS.

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