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After a decade of academic gains and marked increases in high school graduation and college attendance rates, Latino students suffered significant setbacks during the pandemic, as many attended underfunded schools and had access limited to internet at home, a new report shows.
Some of those children also struggled with a language barrier — just like their parents — making the transition to remote learning even more difficult, according to UnidosUS, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, which released the study July 11 at its conference in San Antonio.
“This report comes at a pivotal time as our schools and communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a disproportionate impact on Latino students and their families,” said the President and CEO of ‘UnidosUS, Janet Murguía, in the foreword. “We cannot allow hard-won educational gains to be undone, but we also know that the pre-pandemic status quo was not working as well as it should.”
Latinos make up a formidable percentage of the K-12 population, rising from 9% in 1984 to 28% today. Some 94% of under-18s are US-born citizens and nearly three-quarters are of Mexican descent. Despite strict and sometimes hostile U.S. immigration policies, their numbers are growing: Latinos are expected to reach 30% of the K-12 population by 2030.
First Lady Jill Biden, who spoke at the conference on Monday, said the White House stands with the Latino community. She spoke about the gun safety laws sparked by the tragic shootings in nearby Uvalde, the diversity of the Latin American population as a whole, and the goals that unite this group.
“Yes, the Latino community is unique,” she said. “But what I’ve heard from you again and again is that you want what all families want. Good schools. Good jobs. Safe neighborhoods. You want justice and equality, the opportunity to build a better life for your families. It’s not just what all families want; it’s what all families deserve.
Latino students have made substantial progress over the past few decades on the education front, notes UnidosUS. Their on-time high school graduation rate rose from 71% in the 2010-2011 school year to nearly 82% in 2018-2019, an all-time high. Likewise, the number of Hispanic students enrolled in post-secondary programs has grown from 782,400 in 1990 to nearly 3.8 million in 2019, a 384% increase.
But both of those numbers have taken a hit in recent years: The on-time Latino high school graduation rate fell 0.7% from 2020 to 2021, according to an analysis of data from 25 states representing 57% of the student population. Even more troubling, college freshman Latino enrollment fell 7.8% in the spring of 2021 from a year earlier, marking the first such drop in a decade: The figure rebounded by 4% in the spring semester of 2022, UnidosUS found, but remained below pre-pandemic levels.
The trend is consistent with that of the overall college population, which is down by more than 1.4 million undergraduates.
Not all academic indicators are available and many poor students weren’t tested during the height of COVID, but at least one critical test shows a lag: Latino students in grades 3-8 saw declines higher than their non-Latino white peers on the NWEA measures of Academic Progress, an intermediate assessment administered in schools across the country.
But, writes UnidosUS in its report, the loss must be put into context. Latino students were more likely to attend high-poverty schools that participated in distance learning for a longer period of time, which often resulted in a higher learning loss rate for students, the organization found.
UnidosUS recommends improved data collection and analysis to identify academic weaknesses and improve results. He implores districts to honor students’ rights to their education — some schools have been sued for not enrolling immigrant students who they say won’t graduate on time — and to include the voices of students and their families in the development of educational policies and services.
It also calls for a major increase in funding, a “bold and historic investment in Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” the federal formula grant program intended to support English language learners by increasing the financing from $831 million to $2 billion.
“Since 2001, the population of English learners has increased by 35%,” the report notes. “However, Title III funding has not kept pace. Adjusted for inflation, funding has declined 24% since 2002.”
The group found that Latino students are more likely than their peers to attend a low-rated school and have a novice teacher. These children also have limited exposure to educators who look like them – only 9% of teachers are Latino – which is a significant factor in student success.
And access to languages remains a challenge: more than three quarters of the country’s 5.1 million English language learners are Latinos and a similar percentage speak Spanish at home.
Research shows that students who learn English generally make academic progress at similar or higher rates than their peers, the study notes, but experience greater learning loss during the summer months when they are not in class. The pandemic, which sent the country’s entire school population home for months, compounded this slide for Latino children, who were disconnected from their teachers and the technology offered by their schools. Just two years before the pandemic, data shows nearly a third of Latino households lacked high-speed broadband internet and 17% lacked a home computer.
Despite the efforts of many schools to put a device in the hands of every child, Latinos remain at a disadvantage. Two years into the pandemic, 1 in 3 people often or sometimes faced one of the following problems: they had to do their homework on a mobile phone, were unable to turn in their homework because they did not have access to a computer or the Internet, or was required to use public Wi-Fi to perform work from home, UnidosUS reported.
And their lack of connectivity wasn’t the only problem, the group found: 50% of Latino parents said they had difficulty helping their children with unfamiliar classes and 58% had problems communicating with teachers, perhaps be due to a language barrier and the inability of schools to employ translators.