There is some good news when it comes to Latino students and reading scores, though there is still a big need for improvement in overall outcomes.
Latino fourth- and eighth-grade students' reading scores have improved by the equivalent of half a grade over the past decade, especially in some areas of the country, according to a new report by Child Trends Hispanic Institute. Yet despite the increase in scores between 2005 and 2015, only 21 percent of Latino fourth-graders reached the "proficient" level in reading in 2015, compared to 46 percent for non-Latino whites and 35 percent for fourth graders overall.
These metrics are important because research has shown that reading achievement at fourth grade is a good predictor of high school graduation rates.
Child Trends, one of the nation's leading child-study centers, is nonpartisan and nonprofit. According to their website, their mission is to "improve the lives and prospects of children and youth by conducting high-quality research and sharing the resulting knowledge with practitioners and policymakers."
In their report, Latinos and Literacy: Hispanic Students' Progress in Reading, research scientists Manica Ramos and David Murphey looked at the fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores of Latino students at the national, state, and local level. They based their research on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as "The Nation's Report Card".
"Our goal in doing this research was to take a look at the progress that has been made in reading by Hispanic students as a counterpart to an earlier study of Latino math scores," David Murphey told NBC News. "There has been lot of focus on the Hispanic population, which is the fastest-growing group in public schools, but we don't feel there has been enough attention to progress or lack of progress that Hispanic students are making."
Today one-in-four U.S. children is Hispanic, and by 2030, the proportion will be one-in-three.
Murphey noted that the report does not delve into the achievement gap - the academic disparities between Hispanics and other students. "I think we can't ignore that - and we do present some statistics on that, but we wanted to stay within the Hispanic population," he said. "We did not want to be distracted by the gap issue… we wanted to focus more on possible issues of Hispanic diversity."
Nor does the Child Trends report venture into causality. "We know from our analyses that scores are increasing," the authors write, "but we cannot tell why." They note that the NAEP data represents a snapshot in time rather than a long-term assessment. However, Ramos and Murphey write that a key factor in student achievement is poverty: "Latino students… tend to be highly concentrated in urban schools that have large numbers of students from low-income backgrounds, and substantially fewer resources than their suburban counterparts."
Nationally, there has been improvement for Latino pupils in reading all across the country, whether they were Cuban-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans or members of other subgroups.
An important finding from the report is that there are significantly different educational outcomes for Hispanic students around the country. More than one third of the states saw improvements in Hispanic reading scores, although the most recent data suggest that progress has slowed.
At the fourth-grade level, only seven states showed significant gains, while at the eighth-grade level, only three states showed significant improvement.
"Maybe the biggest surprise [from the report] is the breadth of the variation of how well Latino students are doing depending on where they live," said Murphey. "When it comes to the achievement gaps between Latinos and white counterparts, this gap ranges from more than three grade levels in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, to only about one level in Louisiana."
"This tells us there is something going on, whether in the demographics or state policies, or with larger issues of language or acculturation," said Murphey."
Manica Ramos said that the report also has a takeaway for families. "If a child is struggling with reading at a young age, or before fourth grade, go to school and try and get as much help as possible," she said. "A lot of times, the conversation around education involves state and local policies, but it is important for parents and families to take responsibility as well."
Ramos said that a "good next step" would be for policymakers in under-performing cities and states to look at those with better reading scores for their Hispanic students, and to try to determine which of their policies might lead to more successful outcomes.
Among the cities the study examined, school districts in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and the District of Columbia were among the top performers.
"This is a testament to the district's singular focus on student achievement, the unwavering commitment of our teachers and leaders, the support of our parents and the academic capacity of our students," Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told NBC. He pointed out that Miami-Dade's ranking was especially notable given that the student body has over 75,000 English-language learners as well as high poverty levels.
"With national politics so accusatory towards immigrants, I take great pride in seeing a community that is diverse, with first- and second generation immigrants, producing some of the most compelling academic achievements in the country," Carvalho said. "This tells me the new America is in fact the great America."
David Murphey hopes that the Child Trends study will be a springboard for further research and policy development. "Like many reports, this (one) raises as many questions as it answers," he said. "But I think it is important for us as nation to recognize and understand how both immigrants and assimilated Hispanic children succeed. We need to celebrate their progress - as well as understand where the gaps still are."