Special Report
Equity & Diversity

Raising Latino Achievement Seen as ‘Demographic Imperative’

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 01, 2012 10 min read
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By 2020, one in four children enrolled in America’s K-12 public schools will be Latino.

Of those Latino students, more than half will be second-generation Americans, born in the United States to at least one parent who is an immigrant. Another third will be at least third-generation Americans, the children of parents who were also born in this country, according to projections from the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization. The remainder will be immigrants themselves, though they will be part of a diminishing stream of young Latinos moving to the United States from Spanish-speaking countries.

With such strong and growing numbers, the educational achievement of this diverse community of students—who increasingly live in states and communities where Latinos were virtually nonexistent even a decade ago—has implications for the national economy, local labor markets, and prospects for upward social mobility for millions of Hispanic Americans.

To meet President Barack Obama’s goal of making the United States the world leader in the share of college graduates by 2020, more than half of the 9 million postsecondary degrees it will take to reach that target must be earned by Latinos, says José A. Rico, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

“The president has made it very clear that the future of our country is at stake if we don’t provide a quality education to our Latino students,” Rico says.

But right now—just eight years before President Obama’s deadline—educational outcomes for Latino students lag behind those of most major ethnic and racial groups by many of the most critical measures. That’s despite some modest gains in recent years and robust efforts to drive down dropout rates for all of the nation’s most vulnerable students. For example:

• Among Hispanic 16- to 24-year-olds in the United States, 17.6 percent were high school dropouts in 2009, compared with 9.3 percent of African-Americans and 5.2 percent of whites in the same age group, although the rate for Hispanics has steadily improved, according to The Condition of Education 2011, published by the U.S. Department of Education.

• Among Hispanic 25- to 64-year-olds, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center found that 64 percent have finished high school, either by earning a standard diploma or a General Educational Development credential, compared with 90 percent of whites, 85 percent of African-Americans, and 89 percent of Asian-Americans. The EPE Research Center’s graduation-rate analysis puts the on-time high school graduation rate for Hispanic students in the class of 2009 at 63 percent—slightly higher than the 59 percent rate for African-American students.

• Roughly 37 percent of Hispanic 25- to 64-year-olds had completed some college coursework or an associate degree, trailing non-Hispanic whites at 63 percent, African-Americans at 53 percent, and Asian-Americans at 74 percent, according to the EPE Research Center.

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• Latino students who make it to college are far less likely than their black, white, and Asian-American peers to finish. In 2010, among Hispanic 25- to 29-year-olds, 14 percent had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 19 percent for African-Americans, 39 percent for whites, and 53 percent for Asian-Americans, according to The Condition of Education 2011.

On some indicators, however, such as participation in Advanced Placement exams and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, Latinos have made more progress toward closing the gap with their white peers than African-American students have.

Still, the portrait of educational achievement for Hispanics in their young adult years is dim, a situation that has its roots in the beginning stages of their schooling.

In the earliest years of education, Latinos already fall short of their peers when it comes to participation. They are the least likely of any of the largest ethnic groups to attend preschool programs, and many start kindergarten speaking little or no English.

New Jersey has done more than any other state to ensure that all its 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families, including Latinos, have access to prekindergarten. But that state’s efforts were spurred by a court order to provide equitable resources to poor students and a major infusion of state cash—a carrot and stick that many other states don’t share.

Later on, as 8th graders, Hispanic schoolchildren score more than 20 points lower than their white peers on the mathematics portion of NAEP. They are half as likely as their white peers to have access to a rigorous high school curriculum that prepares them for college. And, many experts say, they are far more likely than their white and Asian-American peers to attend schools where the expectations for their academic performance are dishearteningly low.

Hispanic or Latino?

The 2010 U.S. Census defined “Hispanic or Latino” as referring to a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race, but it also allowed people to check off separate boxes if they preferred to identify themselves as simply “Cuban,” “Puerto Rican,” or “Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano.” A survey published in April 2012 by the Pew Hispanic Center found that most respondents (51 percent) in this broad population category prefer to identify themselves by their families’ countries of origin rather than use either term. Diplomas Count identifies countries of origin or heritage in writing about particular students and their families.

Those numbers point to a crisis state of education for Latino students, some advocates and experts say, even as there is growing recognition that the success of those students will be central to the progress and prosperity of the entire nation.

“It’s on the brink,” says Delia Pompa, a former bilingual education teacher who is a senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington. “The demographic imperative and the numbers of students we are talking about have pushed people to understand that to improve achievement overall, we’ve got to improve achievement for Latino students.”

Immigration Myths

Out of a school-age population of 54 million 5- to 17-year-olds currently living in the United States, roughly 12.1 million are Hispanic. The overall number of school-age children is projected to reach 58.5 million by 2020, with more than half that growth coming from Hispanic students, who will continue to be the fastest-growing population group in American public schools, says Richard Fry, a senior research associate with the Pew Hispanic Center.

Mapping Latino Population Patterns

An original analysis conducted by the EPE Research Center reveals considerable variation in the percentage of young Latinos living in different regions of the United States. While 23 percent of children nationwide are Latino, higher concentrations of Latino youths are found in the Southwest and along the West Coast. New Mexico has the highest proportion of Latino youths, at 58 percent, followed by California, at 51 percent.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2012. Analysis of data from the American Community Survey (2008-2010), U.S. Census Bureau.

Family Income and Economic Disadvantage

The families of Latino children have income levels similar to those of the families of black children, but are significantly more economically disadvantaged than their white peers. Sixty-one percent of Latino and black children younger than 18 in the United States come from families whose incomes are 200 percent below the federal poverty level. In contrast, 35 percent of white children come from families that have incomes below that threshold.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2012. Analysis of data from the American Community Survey (2008-2010), U.S. Census Bureau.

Math Scores Rise, But Gaps Persist

From 1990 to 2011, math scores for Latino students on the 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress have been slightly higher than those of black students, but remain substantially lower than results for white 8th graders. While scores for all three of those groups continue to improve over time, racial and ethnic achievement gaps persist. In 2011, Latinos scored 8 points higher than black students and 23 points lower than white students.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 1990-2011 Mathematics Assessments

Advanced Placement Participation and Performance

High school students scoring a 3 or higher on Advanced Placement tests can earn college credit based on those results. In 2010, Latino high school students were less likely to take Advanced Placement exams than their white peers and were about half as likely to score a 3 or higher on those exams. Larger disparities in AP test-taking and performance are seen between black and white students.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2012. Analysis of data from the College Board’s Advanced Placement Summary Reports, 2010, and the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, 2010.

Progress on High School Coursetaking

Results of the NAEP High School Transcript Study indicate that Latino students were more likely to complete a midlevel or rigorous curriculum in 2009 than they were in 1990. Despite these improvements, the transcript study shows that fewer black and Latino students take courses the researchers described as midlevel or rigorous than their white classmates.


SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, High School Transcript Study, 1990, 2005, 2009

Assumptions that most Latinos in public schools are immigrants who speak English poorly and are unfairly draining resources from native-born students represent a widespread misunderstanding of the population and have helped drive, to some extent, the passage of tough immigration laws such as Alabama’s, which, before it was put on hold by a federal appeals court, required public schools to check the legal status of students before enrolling them.

Laws like Alabama’s, many educators and advocates say, can have a broad, negative impact on Hispanic children regardless of their legal status and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that children who are in the country illegally are still entitled to a free K-12 public education.

In the small, rural community of Foley, Ala., for example, educators at the local elementary school are expecting retention rates for Hispanic kindergartners and 1st graders to quadruple recent levels, a direct result, they argue, of the state’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Before 2000, the growth in the nation’s Hispanic population was driven largely by immigration. In the past decade, Hispanic births have overtaken immigration as the main source of growth, and more than 90 percent of Latinos under the age of 18 are American-born. Data released in May by the Pew Hispanic Center show that immigration from Mexico—which for four decades brought the largest wave of immigrants from a single country in U.S. history—has come to a standstill and may have reversed.

Despite the once-longstanding inflow of families from Mexico, the Latino community in the United States is incredibly diverse, with different racial backgrounds, traditions, socioeconomic levels, and countries of origin and descent represented. Latinos of Mexican origin or descent, far and away the largest group, make up nearly two-thirds of the nation’s Hispanic community. Latinos of Puerto Rican origin or descent are the second-largest group, at 9 percent, while those of Cuban and Salvadoran heritage make up the third- and fourth-largest shares, respectively.

The generational status of Latino youths—whether they are immigrants themselves, children of immigrants, or children of native-born Hispanics—also accounts for important differences in the population.

And some sectors of the Latino population—for example, the Cuban-immigrant and Cuban-American community in South Florida—have more social capital, such as older generations of adults with higher educational attainment and political clout, to draw on. That explains, in part, the success that the Miami-Dade County school system has had in raising graduation rates for its Hispanic students, who are largely of Cuban origin or heritage.

But Miami educators also say their success is due to their embrace of their students’ heritages and the wide range of English-learning options they provide for students of all proficiency levels.

While the Spanish language is often a unifying characteristic, there are large variations in language skills among Hispanics nationwide, especially among those who are in the school-age population, Fry says. Roughly 30 percent of school-age Latinos report speaking only English, according to household-survey results collected by the U.S. Census Bureau. An additional 52 percent say that they speak Spanish at home, but that they speak English very well.

But the survey results don’t capture the full English-literacy skills of a respondent, and they also do not show how many children who report speaking English might also be receiving English-language services in their schools, Fry says.

Still, more than 77 percent of the 5.3 million English-language learners in the nation’s public schools are from Spanish-language backgrounds, according to data for the 2008-09 school year from the U.S. Department of Education.

And how successful those English-learners are in acquiring the language has an important impact on the overall achievement picture for Latinos. Some of the lowest-achieving Latinos are those who attend U.S. schools for seven or more years without ever meeting criteria to be considered fluent in English. Those students may sound fluent, but they lack the reading and writing skills to be successful in accessing core academic content.

“For these kids, the problem is that they aren’t getting the supports they need to address the reading and writing skills that they lack, and they also aren’t getting access to the mainstream curriculum that they need to graduate and succeed,” says Patricia Gándara, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a co-director of the university’s Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

College Expectations

For many Latino families, the combination of a continuing cycle of low educational attainment and life in isolated communities that are overwhelmingly poor makes it difficult for successive generations to change their trajectory in an upward direction.

Many parents of Latino youths—especially those who come from Mexican-immigrant families—have had little formal education themselves, especially at the high school level, either in their home countries or the United States, Gándara says.

“This is really an important context for people to understand when it comes to our societal expectations that children will complete high school and, hopefully, go onto college,” Gándara says. “With Latinos, children are often living in communities where no one has completed high school or even had contact with high school, and where people don’t know how to go to college or why you would go to college.”


For Latinas, because of gender stereotypes and factors such as the pressure to make family a priority, the desire to attend college can be outmatched by the expectation that it won’t be an option for them.

In the Mexican-American community, children who are third generation (born to U.S.-born parents) or higher often fare worse than their relatives who were immigrants themselves or second generation, a phenomenon that has been studied in Mexican-American families. Some of that is explained, Gándara says, by the tendency of Latino students to attend schools with few peers who are college-oriented and college-bound.

“Peers are huge,” Gándara says. “If you are exposed to peers who are college-oriented, you are naturally going to hear things from them about how to get over the ivy walls. Latinos are not getting the kind of access to college-bound peers who are oftentimes the biggest agents for information and motivation.”

Pompa, of the National Council of La Raza, believes the core problem is not the ethnic or socioeconomic homogeneity of the public schools that many Latino students attend, but what the educators who work in those schools expect and demand from them.

“To say that these kids only have each other as role models, it’s a weak argument when you consider the world we live in,” she says. “To doom a school because it’s mostly Hispanic or [English-language learners], that’s the epitome of low expectations.”


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