Achievement Gap Among Rhode Island Latinos Among Nation's Worst

A report released Tuesday said that Rhode Island has one of the worst achievement gaps between Latino and white students in the country and the state's program teaching English to students who don't know the language is in crisis.

The report by the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University found that Latino students scored two to three levels behind their white peers on National Assessment of Educational Progress math tests. They scored one to two levels behind in reading.

The problem is not just Latinos lagging behind other groups in the state -- Rhode Island's Latinos are half a grade to a full grade behind their Latino peers nationally in math and reading, according to the report.

The report also cited what it called a crisis in the English Language Learner program, traditionally known as English as a Second Language, or ESL. Twenty percent of Latino students in Rhode Island are in the program. They ranked last among English language learners in eight-grade math and in the bottom 10 states in other measures.

In Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket, where the vast majority of Latinos live, only three of 18 annual proficiency targets were met last year, the report said.

Anna Cano Morales, director of Latino Policy Institute, called the report's findings daunting. She said educators have known for years that Latino students lag behind their white peers, but noted the finding bears new significance because Latinos are the state's fastest-growing population and make up a sizable portion of students in several districts.

Sixty-three percent of students in Providence and 72 percent in Central Falls are Latino, according to the report. One-third of Pawtucket students are Latino.

"We're not a subgroup anymore," said Cano Morales, who is Central Falls school board chairwoman. "Our current systems do not have the capacity to do what it takes to be successful with our students today. Our urban systems need to redesign public education."

Cano Morales said addressing Latino achievement is critical for the state's future workforce and economy. She said there are examples of successes that need to be replicated on a larger scale.

Latinos make up about 13 percent of the state's population of just over 1 million.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said the state has made progress closing the achievement gap — part of the department's strategic plan — but that more needs to be done.

"There is still a crisis that has to be addressed," she said.

She said she is grateful for the report and the attention it will bring the issue.

The report said economic disparities likely contribute to academic disparities between Latino and white students in Rhode Island as well between Latino students in the state and their national peers.

The median annual income of Latino families in Rhode Island is just under $29,000, compared with about $60,000 for white families, the report said.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras called the report an important reminder of the urgency the district faces in improving achievement for all students.

Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said the district is working to address challenges related to Latino achievement. She said all new hires must be versed in teaching strategies for English language learners and that the district aims to have veteran teachers fully certified in second language learner instruction within five years.

The report also found that Rhode Island Latinos are about twice as likely as whites to drop out of school. The Latino rate was nearly 20 percent, compared with 9.5 percent for whites.

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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