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D.C. Hispanics trail U.S. peers in math, reading

Performance gaps in 4th, 8th grades compared with whites highest overall

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Hispanic students are struggling to catch up to their white counterparts in reading and math proficiency, and Hispanic students in the District of Columbia suffer from the largest performance gap in the nation, according to a major new study being released Thursday.

On average, Hispanic fourth-graders scored 25 points below white students in reading and 21 points lower in math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Education Department. The figures, taken from 2009 standardized test scores, show the gap in scores has hardly budged since 1990.

Most states were within a few points of that average, but D.C. Hispanic students are doing much worse. Hispanic fourth-graders in the District are 49 points behind white students in reading and 43 points back in math, the report says.

The District at grade eight did not have enough white students to measure the Hispanic-white gap, the report said.

The survey used math and reading tests to measure student performance on a 500-point scale and did not break down Hispanic students by national origin.

Over the past two decades, the national gap has shrunk slightly in reading, but grown in math. In 1992, the first year of the NCES survey, there was a 28-point reading gap among fourth-graders and a 25-point gap among 8th-grade students. The gaps are now 25 and 24 points, respectively.

The gap in mathematics has risen slightly. In 1990, the 4th-grade gap was 19 points. It is now 21 points, the study says. Hispanic eighth-graders were 24 points behind white students in 1990. That gap is now 26 points.

While educators remain concerned, there is a silver lining. The gap has remained relatively stable, while the Hispanic student population has exploded, rising from 2 percent to more than 20 percent of the nation's student body in the past 40 years.

Some states with a relatively small number of Hispanic students, such as Kentucky, performed well in the study. Others, such as Connecticut and Rhode Island, were ranked near the bottom. Similarly, some states with larger Hispanic populations, such as Florida, did well, while others, such as California, were among the worst.

"That's the phenomenon ... states you wouldn't think would be the places where Hispanic students would show up" must now deal with the wide student-achievement gap, said Agustin Orci, executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.

"If [Hispanic students] are lucky enough to be in a school ... where they're sensitive to the needs of Hispanic students, they're going to get better results. There are differences among the states," he said.

One of the key differences, Mr. Orci said, is whether a state adopts broad programs tailored to Hispanic students and English- language learners or instead focuses on the needs of each individual student.

In Kentucky, which had one of the lowest gaps in both grade levels and subjects, the emphasis is on the latter.

"Our schools are focused on this idea that every student should have whatever he or she needs," said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Education. "We believe every kid can learn."

But Hispanic students make up only about 3 percent of the state's student body. In California, on the other hand, Hispanics make up nearly 50 percent of students.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakso said the "long-standing achievement gap is a matter of deep concern," and remains a top priority for the state.

"We also are moving quickly to reexamine our efforts to make sure these students succeed, including playing a more active role in the development of the next generation of assessments for students learning English," he said in a statement.

In Florida, with a public school system that's about 28 percent Hispanic, the achievement gap shrinks the longer a student has been in the system, said Michael Grego, chancellor of the state's public school system.

"The more time they have [to learn English], the more success they'll have," he told The Washington Times on Wednesday.

The state has lofty goals. Mary Jane Tappen, Florida's deputy chancellor of public schools, said the state can completely close the achievement gap. Ms. Tappen said dealing with English learners, who scored lower on the tests than Hispanics with fluent English, should be a top priority across the nation.

"[Students' level of success] is very dependent on their literacy level when they get to us," she said.

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