What the Latino Achievement Gap Really Looks Like

PHOTO:  Latino students still lag behind their white peers in high school graduation rates in all but two states in the country.

This year, one-in-four public elementary school students is Latino, an indication that the young Latino population is growing quickly. But, Latino students still lag behind their white peers in high school graduation rates across the country, according to preliminary data released last week by U.S. Department of Education.

The report shows that in a state-by-state breakdown of high school graduation rates, Hispanic students were less likely to graduate from high school than whites and Asians in all but two states over the 2010-2011 school year. Maine and Hawaii, where Hispanic students had slightly higher graduation rates than their white peers, are the only exceptions to the troubling data. While the department of education says the estimates are more reliable than prior data, because all states had to use the same "rigorous measure" for the first time, Idaho, Kentucky, and Oklahoma did not meet the deadline for data submission, making the dataset for the entire nation technically incomplete. Puerto Rico also was not included.

Of the states that did submit, however, Minnesota has the largest Hispanic achievement gap with Latinos lagging 33 percent in graduation rate than their white counterparts. Only 51 percent of Latinos graduated from high school in the state (the worst Latino graduation rate of any state), whereas 84 percent of whites graduated from high school in the same state. Our nation's capitol, the District of Columbia had the second biggest achievement gap, with 30 percent.

During his 2012 campaign for President, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney boasted that he helped drive the states' schools to be "number one in the nation." While 89 percent of white students graduate from high school in Massachusetts, only 62 percent of Latino students get their high school diplomas, according to the new data set.

Critics say that Romney's choice to scrap the states' bilingual immersion program in favor of English-only education contributed to the state's growing achievement gap.

"Everybody knows that English language learners are the failure in the Massachusetts education story," Roger Rice,the executive director of the Somerville-based Multicultural Education, Training and Advocacy told The Boston Globe. "In the debates, Romney did his thing, talking about getting kids to learn English. But it hasn't been a success.'

Still, a few other states have seen significant successes in the same area. In Maine, which has a very small Latino population (less than two percent of the total), 87 percent of Latino students graduated from high school, the highest percentage of Latinos to graduate high school in any state. But in Texas, which is 38 percent Hispanic, 82 percent of Hispanic students graduated from high school -- the second highest rate of Latino graduation in any state.

Texas was also the first state to allow undocumented students to go to college with in-state tuition rates after they've graduated from high school. Advocates of the policy argue that the potential to go to college acts as incentive to finish high school for many undocumented students.

When Texas Governor Rick Perry was criticized for his state's policy in the Republican primary, the candidate aggressively defended the law.

"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no reason than they've been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," he said." "I still support it greatly."

African American students also lagged behind whites in many of those states where the Latino achievement gap was the worst. Upon releasing the new data set, the U.S. Department of Education largely attributed the attainment gap to state and local policies over demographic disparities:

"Demography plainly influences state educational performance. But state-by-state disparities of such magnitude suggest that demography is not destiny in determining student achievement and attainment. State policies matter."

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