MIAMI – The achievement gap between Hispanic and white students is the same as it was in the early 1990s, despite two decades of accountability reforms, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday.
Performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows the gap narrowed by three points in fourth- and eighth-grade reading since 2003, a reduction researchers said was statistically significant. But the overall difference between them remains more than 20 points, or roughly two grade levels.
"Hispanic students are the largest minority group in our nation's schools. But they face grave educational challenges that are hindering their ability to pursue the American dream," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
The data comes as Congress struggles to reform No Child Left Behind, the broad, encompassing act President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002. The law put a renewed focus on minority students, requiring states to develop tests that would show how well they and other students were performing.
Data previously released on black students shows while significant gains have been made over the last two decades, the gap with white students remains wide.
Researchers say the impact of No Child Left Behind on the achievement gap is difficult to assess because it affects all students and is just one of many factors that would influence their success. However, long-term data shows the sharpest drops in the achievement gap were seen in the 1980s, a period in which gains from the civil rights movement, like higher levels of maternal education and better jobs for black families, were seen.
After that, the achievement gap between white, black and Hispanic students largely increased before narrowing again at the end of the 1990s.
Jack Jennings, president of the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, said No Child Left Behind it is a factor in the limited progress.
"Students are doing better, because both white and Latino students are going up in test scores, and black students as well," Jennings said. "It's not a downward spiral. It's a situation where we've made progress, we just wish we could make more progress faster."
The law required states to develop tests and set goals to bring students to proficiency in math and reading. It also requires interventions, at their most severe, school closures, if students repeatedly failed to meet those benchmarks.
"I would say it's not so much the fault of the accountability system," said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs at The Education Trust. "I think of the accountability system as a thermometer. It tells you where you are, but it's not the thermostat that's going to drive change. It's making sure they have stronger curriculum, good teachers, higher standards."
Sandy Kress, who served as an education adviser to President George W. Bush in the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, said there is evidence that accountability practices have had a positive impact on student performance, including recent Census data that shows a higher percentage of young Hispanic adults finishing high school. The number attending a two-year college has also nearly doubled over the last decade.
"Consequential accountability led to dramatic gains for students, dramatic gains, including Hispanics," Kress said.
The report showed the gap between fourth-grade Hispanic and white students was 21 points in math in 2009. At grade eight, the gap rises to 26 points. The gap was similarly wide in reading — 25 points in fourth grade and 24 in eighth.
Compared to 2007, scores increased slightly or stayed the same, and the achievement gap was not considered statistically significant. Compared to 2003, the gap was the same for fourth grade Hispanic and white students in math, and slightly smaller in eighth grade and for both grades in reading.
Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute , a nonpartisan think tank, called the data on Hispanic students meaningless because it puts students from vastly different backgrounds — first generation Latino students entering the U.S. school system in the middle of their education, for example, with third generation children who are highly assimilated. The data released by the Department of Education is not separated by generation or a parent's country of origin, though it does distinguish between Hispanics who are English language learners and those who are not.
The gap between white students and Hispanics who are not English language learners has declined from 24 points in 1998 to 15 points in 2009 in fourth grade reading. In contrast, the gap between white fourth graders and Hispanic English language learners was 44 points.
Rothstein noted that there has been a remarkable reduction in the achievement gap between black and white students since 1990. The average black student today performs better than about 85 percent of black students 20 years ago, he said.
"I really don't think you can expect a faster rate of achievement," he said.
Still, he said improvement was more rapid before No Child Left Behind.
"I think it's done great harm by narrowing the curriculum and creating incentives for a terribly distorted, excessive focus on basic skills," he said.