OPINION
02/27/2018 04:30 pm ET

We're Judging Latino Students All Wrong

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

Baseball fans across the country will soon be celebrating opening day as if it were a national holiday. The start of the new baseball season means the nation’s pastime has arrived. Millions of fans will turn to the box scores of the games, results that capture the factors that led to the final score. If only we could get such an accurate and complete measure of the educational success ― and failure ― of Latino students.

An examination of any metric assessing the educational experience of Latino students suggests bleak academic achievement levels, graduation rates, college enrollment and completion rates, and post-graduate degree completion. For example, California has the largest number of Latino students in U.S. public schools. Results of the 2017 state test in English language arts/literacy indicate the average score for Latino eighth-graders was similar to non-Latino white fifth-graders. If we can maintain numerous statistics about hitters, pitchers and baseball teams, we can more carefully display why Latino students are doing so poorly.

Many internet graphs, charts and tables of achievement levels, while colorful and simplistic, commit a gross disservice to Latino students. Often Latino students are treated as a homogeneous student population, as if all their names are José and Maria. Whether the displays indicate national test scores, state-level test scores, college enrollment and graduation rates, completion rates of required courses for college enrollment, or high school dropout rates, the common practice is to aggregate Latino student data with no consideration to the heterogeneity within this student population. And these overly simplistic graphics of under-performance have had deleterious effects on teacher expectations and access to rigorous and accelerated courses. The consequence is a reinforcement of negative stereotypes and a blame-the-victim mentality.

Latino students are the most segregated students in U.S. public schools.

The rich diversity of Latinos in U.S. schools is rarely demonstrated in statistical profiles. While the largest nation of origin for Latinos is Mexico, others trace their ancestry to a variety of Latin America countries. The median age of Latinos in the U.S. varies from 26 for Mexicans to 40 for Cubans. In 2014, about 35 percent of Latinos in the U.S. were foreign born. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center reported that one-fourth of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or of African descent with roots in Latin America.

Historically, the causes for low levels of educational success for Latino students are often attributed to cultural factors, family dynamics or language. Little attention is ascribed to the enormous diversity within the Latino student population and the negative school experiences associated with that diversity. For example, almost one-third of Latino K-12 students require English-learner services. Yet research has not established when it is appropriate for these students to have English-language tests of academic skills and knowledge. Consequently, for many students who are not native English speakers, it remains unclear if test results are a function of academic skills or English language proficiency.

Latino students are the most segregated students in U.S. public schools. Whether the genesis is due to housing patterns, linguistic grouping or white flight, there is a dearth of research on educational consequences of Latino student segregation. Over 60 years of research has established the harmful effects of black student segregation on academic achievement, but it is difficult to extrapolate from these studies to draw conclusions about Latino students. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that more than one-third of children in poverty are Latino. Since the 1966 Coleman Report, which examined the relationship between educational resources and student outcomes, we have known the damaging effect of poverty on schooling.

While website displays or creative infographics offer quick glimpses of salient data points, rarely is caution suggested to avoid misinterpretation. Academic achievement levels are not necessarily a reflection of cultural characteristics or variables in students’ backgrounds. Instead, school or social factors that contribute to poor academic performance should also be considered. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, has reported test scores from a national sample since 1969. NAEP results are used to determine academic progress for grades 4, 8 and 12. The NAEP website appropriately cautions users against the misinterpretation of results when it recommends consideration of “knowledge about the student population and the educational system, such as trends in instruction, and changes in the school-age population.”

Websites reporting this data should take steps to help readers see the whole picture.

This year, states and school districts are expected to publicly report the academic performance and progress of student subgroups under the Every Student Succeeds Act. Signed by President Barack Obama on Dec. 10, 2015, it reauthorized the 50-year-old Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Since 1965, this landmark legislation has guided our nation’s goal toward full educational opportunity.

Websites reporting this data should take steps to help readers see the whole picture. Note the wide diversity among Latino students. Accentuate the harmful effects of school practices that mostly affect minority students, such as tracking into low-level classes, grade retention and instruction that isn’t challenging. A focus on school practices and policies can prevent stereotypical judgments or interpretations that often assign the blame to students. Indicate that testing protocols of English learners within the Latino population may not have followed the established guidelines set by the American Psychological Association for the proper testing of students who are not English proficient.

A nuanced examination of Latino student achievement should model a typical baseball box score. A box score is easy to read and provides common statistics. The liner notes list critical and telling information for each team, such as the number of stolen bases, extra base hits, relief pitchers and runners left on base. And knowledgeable readers can review this information with the context they need to interpret the final score.

Paul Garcia is a retired educator and research associate with the Center for Leadership, Equity and Research, whose mission is to eliminate educational and social inequalities.

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