Closing the performance gap among Texas Hispanic students

A little more than one month ago, the Dallas Morning News’ education blog drew my attention to a frightening trend in student achievement demographics.  Namely, based on the results of the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – which bi-annually ascertains performance in mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history among student samples in grades 4, 8, and 12 across the country – the performance gap between white and Hispanic children has only widened.  As a whole, Texas students’ results in mathematics and reading fluctuated only slightly between 2011 and 2013, resulting in the state’s highest scores (i.e. fifteenth place nationwide) in eighth grade math.

Underneath this good news, however, is the troubling reality that math scores among Texas Hispanic students were, on average, 19 points lower than among white students. Moreover, Hispanic students’ reading scores were, on average, an astounding 27 points lower than white students’. Compared with results from 2011, the gap between students in reading has widened by a margin of seven points.

According to the U.S. Census, 38.2% of Texans identified as Hispanic, and 44.5% identified as white and non-Hispanic (1) ; in addition, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts estimates that come 2020, Hispanics will constitute the majority in the state.  It is clear that Texas owes a great deal of its historical and cultural patrimony to the contributions of its Hispanic denizens throughout multiple generations and that they have been – and will remain – crucial to the state’s social fabric.  What worries me, though, is a situation wherein the achievement gap goes unchecked and we are left with a majority – any majority of any language, creed, and background – that significantly under-performs.

How will this impact the future of our state from a political, economic, and – perhaps even more importantly – social perspective? Will all the efforts that individual educators have taken to foster inter-ethnic dialogue and accord go to naught as, on the societal level, embracing individual differences is supplanted by collective resentment and some sort of quasi-plutocracy?

Today’s Hispanic youth deserve every effort from Texas school districts to close the performance gap and to equip them with the resources they need.  Not because they may very well form the majority in the state, but primarily because they are entitled to the same dreams, promises, and prospects as their peers.  First, though, the underlying causes for this performance gap need to be identified and isolated. It strikes me that as possibly being the children of recent immigrants, several Hispanic students may very well confront additional linguistic and cultural hurdles to which other students may not necessarily be privy. If a child grows up with minimal exposure to the English language at home and in the neighborhood, this could possibly influence reading ability. Similarly, if parents are unable to participate in PTA meetings and in candid conversations with their children’s teachers, the link between home and school suffers. But these are not the only factors.

Classroom rhetoric and curriculum structures may also have something to do with this trend.  Educators may want to revise the roles their classrooms play in social education and the messages they send.  I’m not too sure I love the term “assimilation,” as to me it connotes sacrifices a group makes to somehow blend in with – or even become – a larger whole.  In the case of Texas, the group to be assimilated will quite possibly become the larger, assimilating force in a number of years.  Still, that seems to be almost immaterial. What is more important is showing students they are part of a community that values them and welcomes them for who they are. The involvement and inclusion of parents and “extra-curricular actors” would be crucial for such a model to work. If students realize they are fortified by a network of support that is all-encompassing – and if they are not led to believe they are minorities in a larger, more intangible sea somewhere out there – their will to succeed may very well increase. And who knows? Maybe that empowerment alone will help close a large part of the achievement gap.

 (1) The term “Hispanic” carries a linguistic (i.e. Spanish-speaking) connotation and not a racial connotation. As such, a white individual from Spain, a black individual from Cuba, and a Native individual from Mexico could all be considered Hispanic.  Author’s note.