Report: Area Latino students improving in 8th-grade math tests, but challenges remain

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 12:15 AM

Racial and ethnic disparities in student achievement remain stubbornly wide, despite a decade of efforts to close them, but a new report has found that Latino students are narrowing the academic gaps notably in many schools.

In Virginia, the report found, the pass rate for Latino students on state eighth-grade math tests rose almost 5 percentage points a year from 2006 to 2009. In Maryland, the rate has been rising at about the same clip. And in the District, it has been rising even faster - 8 percentage points a year.

Those increases were among the largest in a comparison of gains by racial subgroups in those jurisdictions, according to the report from the Center on Education Policy to be made public Tuesday. They reflected a national pattern.

"That's a real ray of sunshine, that Latino students are doing better almost across the board in eighth-grade math," said Jack Jennings, the center's president and a former Democratic congressional aide.

But the center's analysis of state and federal test scores underscored huge challenges for educators as Congress debates revisions to the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Foremost among them: The pass rate on state tests for African American students in many states is often 20 to 30 points lower than for white students. And the pass rate for Latino students often trails the rate for non-Hispanic white students by 15 to 20 percentage points. Those disparities persist even though achievement is rising among all groups.

"No matter how much we try, we still have a lot of distance to go," said Eric A. Hanushek, a Stanford University economist who specializes in education.

Under No Child Left Behind, enacted under President George W. Bush, schools are supposed to aim toward the goal of proficiency in reading and math for all students tested by 2014. That goal has always been viewed as an ideal, even though a handful of schools have been able to achieve a perfect pass rate. In recent years, as 2014 approaches, the question has become how far the nation's schools will fall short.

President Obama wants a new target - ensuring that all students are on track for college or a career by 2020.

No matter what the goal or the remedy, Hanushek said, the challenge will be to ensure that extra help gets to the students who need it most. Often it doesn't. As a result, those who are ahead tend to gain more than those who are behind.

The report, which Jennings described as the most comprehensive of its kind, found that the median pass rate among all states in fourth-grade reading was 84 percent for students of Asian descent, 83 percent for white students, 62 percent for Latino students and 59 percent for black students.

Notably, the report found a gap between students of Asian descent and all others in math. The median high school pass rate for students of Asian descent was 81 percent. White students posted the next-highest median high school pass rate - 69 percent.

The center also calculated how long it might take states to close achievement gaps if current trends continue. For Louisiana, it found, it might take 12 1/2 years for black students to catch up with white students in fourth-grade reading. In Florida, it might take 28 years. And in Washington state, 105 years.

For local jurisdictions, the center estimated, it would take about seven years for Maryland to close the black-white gap in fourth-grade reading and more than 30 for Virginia to do so. There were not enough data to make a projection for the District.

Virginia education spokesman Charles Pyle called the estimate "perhaps an interesting academic exercise," but said the state would soon be revising its tests. "We're about to begin a brand-new trend line," Pyle said.

Maryland education spokesman Bill Reinhard said the state is redoubling efforts to close gaps. "Nobody is satisfied with those results," he said.

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