Northwest suburban Hispanic high school students are doing better on standardized tests than their downstate counterparts, but the "achievement gap" between Hispanic teens and other students in the suburbs is still too wide, educators say.
Statistics from the 2012 state report cards, released today by the State Board of Education, indicate a larger percentage of Northwest suburban Hispanic students are meeting or exceeding state standards on the Prairie State Achievement Exam than the state average.
However, when compared to their classmates at suburban schools, 11th-grade Latino students score 15-22 points lower on state science, math and reading tests.
The Daily Herald looked at PSAE scores at 27 Northwest suburban high schools in Elgin Area School District U-46, Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg District 211, Maine Township District 207, Barrington Area District 220, Glenbard High School District 87, Leyden District 212 and Lake Zurich Unit District 95.
Hispanics make up 16.5 percent of the U.S. population according to the latest Census, but in many Northwest suburban schools the rate of Hispanic students is two or three times that.
In reading, 37.7 percent of suburban Latino students met or exceeded the state standards. In science, 40 percent did.
At some schools, including West Leyden, Larkin, Maine East, Rolling Meadows and Streamwood, fewer than 35 percent of Hispanic students meet or exceed state standards in math, putting them below even the state average.
To contrast, among all students in the Northwest suburbs, about 60 percent met or exceeded state standards in math, reading and science.
The differences mean fewer Hispanic students are likely to go to college and successfully compete for good jobs in the suburban area, say experts.
The answer, like the problem, is complicated and will take a systemic change in education, says Claudia Rueda-Alvarez, a counselor at Maine West High School who organizes the Latino Teen Summit and has presented at national conferences about issues facing Hispanics in education.
"If half your workforce is going to be uneducated, who is going to pay for Social Security, who is going to contribute to the economy?" she asks. "If we do nothing it will result in economic disaster for everyone. As a country we are the ones who are going to lose. We won't be able to compete."
Closing the gap
While educators say test scores are not an exact measure of student progress, what starts as an educational problem often translates to the economic sector later.
"A growing percentage of our workforce population are Hispanic in this state and nationwide," said Wheeling High School Principal Lazaro Lopez. "We need them to be as educated and successful as their non-Hispanic counterparts because it's going to have a direct impact on our economy."
That is why some suburban schools are taking a career-pathways approach to high school, with students planning courses around a future career like engineering or manufacturing.
Wheeling High School, which is about 50 percent Hispanic, became a STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- school in 2010. While Lopez said it was about students' overall success, not just test scores, Hispanic students at Wheeling are outperforming their peers in math both around the suburbs and statewide.
At Wheeling High School 56.3 percent of Hispanic students met or exceeded mathematics state standards in 2012, nearly 20 points higher than the state average for Hispanic students and 12 points higher than Hispanic students around the suburbs.
At Larkin High School in Elgin, the focus has been on reading and writing skills, which Principal Jon Tuin thinks is why there has been a slight improvement in the school's test scores. Between 2008 and 2012, Latino students at Larkin improved their reading scores by 5.9 percentage points; their math scores by 11.4 percentage points and the science scores by 12.5 percentage points.
"If they succeed, we all succeed," said Tuin, whose student body is 58.3 percent Hispanic. "It's about all of our students having an opportunity for a better life. Our work here is really an act of social justice to improve generations down the line. Being able to read, write and communicate is critical to that mission."
Hispanic students struggle because of cultural, socioeconomic and family factors, experts said.
"There is no one answer for the achievement gap," said Lopez. "If the dominant language at home is Spanish, that might provide a barrier. For other students it might be moving from another school or another country. For others it might be their overall engagement with the school."
Raising the bar
One key to success is making students and families realize the importance of education after high school, said Kenneth Ender, Harper College president.
"Postsecondary education is a prerequisite to a good standard of living in this country. It is not an option," said Ender, who adds "postsecondary" includes certification programs, military service or community college, as well as four-year degrees.
Harper College has a partnership with Northwest suburban high schools, assessing at-risk students and helping them transition to college. The partnership, now in its fourth year, has made more students ready for college courses and the job market, Ender said.
"They can catch up. It's harder for them, but it does happen and we are making progress," Ender said. This year there was a 12 percent decrease in students who needed to take a developmental or remedial math class.
On Nov. 18, freshmen and sophomores from across the Northwest suburbs will come to Harper College for the annual Latino Teen Summit. There, students meet with Latino professionals and college students who will encourage them to stay in school and pursue higher education.
A new Boys and Girls Club at Larkin High School meets every afternoon to offer students fellowship, mentors and an opportunity to finish homework.
Each Monday, Ricardo Gasca from the Renz Center of Elgin visits to share ideas about finding success, not just in the classroom.
"What is a friend?" he asks, and many shrug. One student finally speaks up, and the conversation begins to flow -- "someone who's honest," "someone you can talk to," "somebody to believe in."
That shows how just one good leader can move the needle, said Steve May, Wheeling assistant principal and adviser for the Hispanic Athletic Council.
Teens who get involved outside the classroom have more success, officials say.
"Being involved provides another level of motivation," Lopez said. "If a student is in an organized school activity, part of the expectation to be allowed to participate is to do well in school."
Activities also teach time management and improve attendance, May said. He said fewer Hispanic students are involved in extracurricular activities than other students, many of them burdened with having to baby-sit siblings or hold a job.
Schools are using new ideas in the classroom, on the athletic field and after school to reach out to Hispanic students and bolster success, but as the test scores show, there is still a long way to closing the gap.
"(The numbers) should certainly cause every educator to pause and reflect on what they are doing and ensure that we are constantly rethinking our practices to make sure we are doing what's best for the students," Lopez said. "Because whatever systems are in place now are leading to the results we have."
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