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Latinos Better Math Scores Despite Falling Family Income, Study Says

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the early 1970s to the early 1990s, Latino students in secondary schools nationwide posted significant gains in mathematics proficiency even as Latino family income fell, an Orange County researcher has found.

Luis Ortiz-Franco, an associate professor of mathematics at Chapman University in Orange, said his study presents an alternative to a common supposition about education achievement: that most students from low-income families can advance only as far in mathematics as their socioeconomic lot allows.

Ortiz-Franco presented his findings this month at a conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Washington.

Drawing on data from the U.S. Census and a standardized test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the study found “compelling evidence” that declining income does not equate to declining math achievement “for the general Latino population.”

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The study’s key points:

* Median annual income for Latino families was $23,901 in 1992, down from $25,858 in 1972. The income gap between Latino and non-Latino white families also widened in that time.

* Meanwhile, the average mathematics proficiency of 13- and 17-year-old Latino students rose in comparison to their white peers. In addition, 9-year-old Latino students did not lose ground.

In 1973, for example, 13-year-old Latino students scored 239 on a 500-point scale, and 13-year-old white students 274--a gap of 35 points. By 1992, that gap had narrowed to 20 points, with Latinos scoring 259 and whites 279.

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For perspective, scores of 250 on the standardized test scale indicate students have a grasp of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; can compare information on graphs and charts; and can analyze logical relations. Scores of 300 indicate an ability to handle basic geometry and compute decimals, fractions and percentages.

The study asked--but supplied no definitive answers--about what might be boosting Latino math achievement if wealth and poverty are less important than previously presumed.

The issues raised in the study are crucial for educators in Orange County and elsewhere in California, as more Latino students enter school, many of them from impoverished families where little English is spoken. The percentage of Latino children in California public schools, now about 40%, has roughly tripled in the past three decades.

Math teaching experts appraised the research findings cautiously.

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Leo Richards, a professor emeritus of education at USC, said there is limited value in comparisons of census data and math testing data. “It’s apples and oranges,” Richards said. He said more direct research is needed on factors that cause higher achievement.

Wayne Bishop, a math professor at Cal State L.A., questioned the test data Ortiz-Franco cited, saying that the national test itself is sometimes “tilted” and “not nearly as good as what it could be.”

Ortiz-Franco theorized that Latino parents may play a key role in their children’s success by limiting access to television and taking an interest in school affairs. But he said more research is needed.

Ortiz-Franco contrasted his report with others that he said drew links between socioeconomic status and student achievement, including a 1993 paper published by the National Center for Education Statistics.

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“All I’m saying here is, in the overall picture, just because we see a Latino who has low income, we should not say he’s going to have low mathematics achievement,” Ortiz-Franco said. “We should not generalize.”

In Santa Ana Unified School District, Orange County’s largest, Latino students make up 90% of total enrollment. Most students also are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. On math tests, students in Santa Ana’s elementary and middle schools have routinely ranked in the bottom third nationwide on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

Supt. Al Mijares last year announced a drive to get students above the national average, saying educators and parents cannot presume that poverty is an insurmountable barrier--a message buttressed by Ortiz-Franco.

Bishop agreed.

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“Can you achieve improvement in spite of socioeconomic conditions? The answer is--absolutely,” Bishop said. “I absolutely believe that it can be done, should be done. It is our moral obligation as a country.”


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