While growing numbers of Hispanic students have changed the face of American education over the past two decades, the gap between them and their white classmates in math and reading remains as wide as it was in the 1990s, according to a new federal study.
The National Center for Education Statistics report, released Thursday morning, finds that Hispanic students overall have improved significantly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress since 1990. The mean scale scores in mathematics rose 28 points for Hispanic 4th graders and 21 points for 8th graders; in reading, the scores improved 10 points in the 4th and 8th grades from the early 1990s to 2009, with each 10-point increase equal to about one grade level of improvement.
Yet non-Hispanic white students exceeded Hispanic students' increase in math in both the 4th and 8th grades during the same time, and while white students' performance improved more slowly in reading, the growth was not slow enough for Hispanic students to catch up and close the gaps of more than two grade levels between the groups in both subjects.
"I think with this report coming out, people can respond in two ways," said Raul Gonzalez, the director of legislative affairs for the Washington-based National Council of LaRaza, a Hispanic-advocacy organization. "We can say, 'Well, we tried and we failed, so let's not try anymore,' or we can look at the data and say, 'If 20 to 25 percent of your school system's kids are not doing well, we need to do something urgent.' "
The report on Hispanics is the second in a series of NCES reports analyzing long-term achievement trends for specific student groups on NAEP, often dubbed "the nation's report card." It compares students' average scale scores on the tests, not the percentages of students who reach each proficiency level.
The first study, in 2009, found narrowing achievement gaps between black and white students in 4th grade math and reading and 8th grade math, but there, too, white students retained a two-grade-level performance advantage on NAEP.
Language and Poverty
The new study does point to promising signs of improvement. Among students in poverty, as identified by the National School Lunch Program, Hispanic and white students both improved significantly in math in both grades between 2003, when the data were first disaggregated, and 2009. The achievement gap narrowed slightly in grade 4, and it tightened notably in grade 8, dropping from 17 points to 13 points.
Language ability also seems to play a role in the achievement gap, the data show. Between 1998, when data were first disaggregated, and 2009, the achievement gap in reading between English-proficient Hispanic students and their white peers shrank significantly, from 24 points to 15 points in 4th grade and from 22 points to 15 in 8th grade.
By contrast, the reading gap between Hispanic English-language learners and their white peers actually rose by a point in 8th grade during the same time, and shrank by 13 points in 4th grade, an amount that was statistically not significant for that group because of differences in the sample sizes.
Yet NCES Commissioner Sean P. "Jack" Buckley said he would balk at saying English-language gaps are a bigger issue than racial disparities, in part because each state can use different accommodations for English-language learners taking the assessment.
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