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.
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."
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.
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.
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