Academic Benefits of Mexican-American Studies Reaffirmed in New Analysis

By Holly Yettick — November 14, 2014 4 min read
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Researchers at the University of Arizona have updated a provocative study on Tucson’s controversial Mexican-American studies program that reaches the same conclusion: Students who participated in the ethnic studies courses were more likely to graduate from high school and pass standardized exams they had previously failed.

In the updated analysis, researchers put the results through the peer review process at the American Educational Research Journal, one of the nation’s top-rated academic education publications. The new report, which appears in the December 2014 issue of the journal, includes additional data on the outcomes for students in the Mexican-American studies program, or MAS.

“The estimated relationship between MAS participation and student educational attainment was surprisingly strong,” the American Educational Research Journal article authors wrote. “Analyses from our initial report had not [accounted] for prior academic achievement...We expected the estimated relationship to decline once [prior achievement was] included, but it did not.”

Instead, the researchers found that students with lower prior achievement got an especially big benefit from MAS. So did students who took multiple MAS courses, the researchers found in this new analysis. The Tucson Unified School District eliminated its Mexican-American studies courses in 2011 in order to avoid losing $15 million annually in state funding. That was the penalty they would have faced for violating a 2010 state law that prevented schools from offering courses that are aimed primarily at students of a certain ethnicity, or designed to promote ethnic solidarity, ethnic resentment or the overthrow of the U.S. government.

The initial version of the American Educational Research Journal study was conducted in 2012, in connection with Tucson’s long-running school desegregation lawsuit.

Nolan L. Cabrera, an assistant professor of education at the University of Arizona in Tucson, spearheaded that analysis at the request of Willis Hawley, the special master appointed by U.S. District Judge David Bury to oversee the district’s desegregation plan. Based on those findings, Hawley ordered the Tucson district to “develop and implement culturally relevant courses of instruction designed to reflect the history, experiences, and culture of African American and Mexican American communities.”

In response, Tucson created eight “culturally relevant courses” in 11th grade history and English, according to Steve Holmes, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the 60,000-student school district. These courses include Mexican and African-American history, English and government. They are currently up and running at three of the district’s 10 comprehensive high schools.

Cabrera is also the lead author on the updated analysis. In an email to Education Week, Cabrera described this effort as “a good start” that “leaves a lot of work left.”

For the court ordered report, the assistant professor and his co-authors said that they had just six weeks to obtain the data they needed, seek approval from their university’s Institutional Review Board, conduct their analysis and write up their results. Their positive results were in line with findings of a small number of previous studies on the MAS program, most of which used qualitative methods such as interviews rather than the statistical modeling employed by Cabrera and his co-authors.

Overall, this latest analysis included more than 26,000 Tucson students who were members of the graduating cohorts of 2008, 2009, 2010. The researchers used additional information on prior student achievement. They found that students who elected to take MAS courses were actually at a disadvantage before they took the classes, which, in most cases, were offered only to high school juniors and seniors. In grades 9 and 10, the MAS students had lower grade point averages than their non-MAS peers. They also had lower scores on 10th grade state exams. Additionally, 77 percent of MAS students came from families with incomes low enough for them to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

By contrast, 66 percent of non-MAS students qualified for free or reduced-price meals. MAS students were also more likely to be English-language learners (15 percent versus 8 percent), or Hispanics (85 percent versus 56 percent). However, they were less likely to be identified as special education students (10 percent versus 19 percent). The statistical models in the study teased out the way in which MAS impacted student achievement by accounting for these and other differences between those who did and did not take MAS courses.

After accounting for these differences, the researchers found that MAS students were 9.5 percent more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who attended the same high schools but did not take MAS courses. In the latest analysis, Cabrera and his co-authors expanded upon their comparison group to include both MAS students who attended the six MAS schools as well as those who attended schools that did not offer MAS. This barely budged their results: MAS students were 9 percent more likely to graduate than their peers at MAS and non-MAS schools. The same was true for state exams. MAS students who failed one such exam were nearly 7 percent more likely to pass that exam after taking a MAS course.

“There was a consistent, significant, positive relationship,” between MAS and student achievement, Cabrera wrote.

The American Educational Research Association is providing free access to the study for the next month. Download it here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.