Hispanic-white achievement gap narrows during school years, but black-white gap widens

Woman in her graduationThe achievement gap between black and white students widens as students get older, but the achievement gap between Hispanic and white students narrows as students progress through school, says a recent study in the American Educational Research Journal. Developmental patterns among Hispanic students also differ according to their ethnic subgroup, the researchers found in this study.

Black and Hispanic students have similar socioeconomic backgrounds and cognitive skills at the start of schooling but different developmental trajectories, suggesting that socioeconomic status is not the only factor in the achievement gaps, write researchers Sean Reardon and Claudia Galindo.

Hispanics’ greater language proficiency and school quality may be factors in students’ different academic trajectories, they say.

“Differences in the average quality of schools attended by Hispanic, Black, and White students may play an important role in the development of achievement disparities (for Blacks) or their amelioration (for Hispanics),” the authors write. “That Hispanic-White gaps narrow following the start of formal schooling suggests that schooling has the potential to remedy at least part of initial achievement gaps.”

Researchers tracked the developmental patterns of Hispanic-White math and reading gaps and variations across Hispanic subgroups in elementary school by using the National Center for Education Statistics’ ECLS-K data. The ECLS-K contains data on a nationally representative sample of about 21,400 students from the kindergarten class of 1998-1999.

The Hispanic population was disaggregated using 4 variables: national/regional origin, immigrant generational status, socioeconomic status and language used at home. The Hispanic population is economically disadvantaged in comparison to the non-Hispanic population, the authors note. The median Hispanic family income in 2003 was $33,000, only 69% of the White median family income.

There are 5 important findings from this study, the authors write.

1. Hispanic students enter kindergarten with math and reading skills significantly lower than those of white students. Upon entering kindergarten, Hispanic students’ math scores are three quarters of a standard deviation below those of white students. Reading scores are a half standard deviation below those of white students among the 71% of Hispanic students who are proficient in oral English.

2. The Hispanic-white achievement gaps narrow during kindergarten and first grade (from 0.77 standard deviations to 0.56 in math and from 0.52 to 0.29 in reading). The Hispanic-white gaps change little after 1st grade. By 5th grade, the math gap is still a half standard deviation, and the reading gap widens slightly, to three eighths of standard deviation.

3. There is considerable variation in achievement patterns among Hispanic subgroups. Students of Mexican and Central American origins have lower math and reading scores upon entering school than do children of Cuban, South American, and other national origins and children of Hispanic parents born in the United States. This is particularly true for students of Mexican and Central American origins whose parents are immigrants. These 2 ethnic subgroups are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than other Hispanic students and less likely to come from homes where English is spoken, the authors write.

4. Differences among Hispanic subgroups persist through fifth grade, although they become somewhat less pronounced. In 5th grade, Mexican-origin students score one quarter to one half a standard deviation lower than Cuban and Puerto Rican students on the ECLS-K tests of math and reading.

5. Students from subgroups who enter school with lower levels of math and reading skills narrow the achievement gap more than other subgroups. By the end of 5th grade, math achievement gaps of Mexican students with foreign-born parents, Hispanic students from Spanish-speaking homes, and Hispanic students from the lowest quintile of socioeconomic status are a half standard deviation smaller than the gaps when they entered kindergarten.

“Some of the rapid progress of Hispanic students in the first 2 years of schooling may be due to the use of instructional practices that are effective with English-language learners in the first years of schooling,” the authors write. After 1st grade, instructional practices targeted to English learners may be less common and/or less effective if students have become reasonably proficient in oral English. More than 80% of those not proficient in English in kindergarten are proficient by the end of first grade, the authors note.

“The Hispanic-White Achievement Gap in Math and Reading in the Elementary Grades,” by Sean Reardon and Claudia Galindo, American Educational Research Journal, September 2009, Volume 45, Number 3, pps. 853-.

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