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Hispanic Achievement: Not Only a Matter of Education

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What drives improvements in Hispanic education achievement in U.S. schools? What are the variables that ultimately explain these improvements? And what is the link between educational achievement and other socio-economic factors? These are the questions that a recent paper (of which I am a co-author) put together by Formar Foundation aims to answer.

The paper also attempted an analysis of which factors influence Hispanic achievement based on a preliminary statistical analysis of some explanatory variables at the state level in the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, the research found significant evidence that differences in socio-economic status -- particularly poverty levels -- go a long way in explaining the persistent achievement gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students.

Just how serious is this gap? While not perfect, the most common way of measuring comparative educational achievement in the U.S. is through standardized test scores, and specifically the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), the largest representative, ongoing, and multi-subject assessment. According to the NEAP, while there has been a reduction in the gap -- Hispanic students between the 4th and 8th grades improved their reading scores by, on average, 6.75 points from 2003 to 2011, whereas white students have improved their scores on average only 2.24 points in the same period -- white students still perform better than Hispanic students at all grade levels.

The continuing gap is particularly troubling given that Hispanics are the largest, youngest and fastest growing minority in the United States. The group now includes 50.5 million people, accounting for 16 percent of the total population, and over the last ten years accounted for 56 percent of the nation's growth rate. This means that more than 11 million Hispanic children are currently between the ages of five and 17. In comparison, the white population increased by 14.3 million and accounted for 26 percent of US population growth.

Not that there has been a shortage of attempted reforms. Indeed, over the past two decades, there have been efforts to improve Hispanic student performance both directly, through targeted programs, and indirectly, by seeking system-wide improvements.

Reforms targeted at the particular educational problems of the Hispanic community include programs to improve English language skills, provide scholarships for students, supply mentoring activities, and encourage enrollment in early childhood programs, among others. On the other hand, a greater movement toward performance-based results assessment has sought to raise achievement for all students in the system and thus by default that of Hispanics. This is the case of reforms related to parental choice, performance accountability, and teacher training. By the beginning of the 21st century, the most important instance of the second type of reform was the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which also had a primary objective of reducing educational inequality between various sectors of society.

However, the evidence shows that minorities in general, and Hispanics in particular, have not benefitted from these reforms as intended. Beyond a gap in standardized testing, Hispanics continue to struggle in a number of important areas. Hispanic students are less likely to be enrolled in childhood learning and kindergarten programs. Their high school graduation rates only reach 65.9 percent, compared to the national rate of 75.5 percent. They disproportionately attend public schools that are larger, more minority-heavy, and lower quality. Hispanics are underrepresented in the teaching profession as well, a fact which likely contributes to the fact that only 53 percent of Hispanic high school graduates are "minimally qualified" for admission to a four-year undergraduate program.

These dispiriting statistics suggest that factors beyond the education system itself are driving low achievement, and our model attempted to measure the strength of the correlation between academic success and various socio-economic conditions. We found that the most evident correlation in this area was that between the reading test gap and child poverty -- the greater the difference between Hispanic and white children living in poverty, the wider the achievement gap. In fact, an increase of one unit in the percentage of Hispanic children that are poor in comparison with white children in poverty is associated with an increase of 0.87 points in the achievement gap.

Moreover, one point of increase in the dropout rate among Hispanic students from one year to the other is associated with an increase of 1.22 points in the achievement gap. The teacher-to-student ratio is also significant, as a one point increase in the ratio is associated with an increase of 1.12 in the achievement gap.

While this does prove direct causation in itself, and while more analysis is needed, we believe that education reformers too often overlook the influence of these interlocking socio-economic variables on the achievement gap. Poverty levels, lack of language skills and other social issues all seem to conspire to drag down the quality of education among Hispanics. And that means, unfortunately, that education reform polices alone will not, ultimately, be enough to solve the education deficit.

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