Research Sheds Light on Risk Factors for Hispanic Students in North Carolina

With North Carolina’s changing demographics come changing classrooms. Research from three Duke professors shows special risk factors for Hispanic children in the state. Empty school hallway

The number of people migrating to the U.S. doubled between 1990 and 2008. By 2009, 38.5 million people in the US were foreign-born (around 12.5% of the total population). Most of the new migrants came from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. During this period, the destination of the families also switched from traditional places, like Texas and California, to new destinations—among them, North Carolina.

Once they make it to North Carolina, immigrants remain at a distinct disadvantage. According to research by Duke professors Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor, income among these families is lower than that of non-migrants. In addition, less than half of Hispanic migrant families have high school-educated parents and almost a third have no English speakers in the household.

By these measures, Hispanic families in NC are worse off when compared to Hispanic families in traditional destinations, like California and Texas, and when compared to the average Hispanic family in the U.S.

All these facts suggest that in North Carolina, Hispanic children have important risk factors threatening their educational attainment. This issue raises the following questions: How do Hispanic students in North Carolina perform over time in comparison to their white peers? Do they have higher risk of dropping out?

In their study “New Destinations, New Trajectories? The Educational Progress of Hispanic Youth in North Carolina”, Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor explore these questions using data from all students in North Carolina Schools. The students are grouped into seven generations and followed from third grade through middle school. The authors use standardized tests for reading and math as measures of performance, and estimate the likelihood of dropping out for each group based on personal and socioeconomic characteristics.

The study found that in early grades, Hispanic students fall short of the average for white students. By the fifth grade, the gap closes, but only among students of a similar socioeconomic status. Under this condition, Hispanic students even start performing better than non-Hispanics after the fifth grade.

However, this isn’t the case for all Hispanic students. Among Latino students who entered NC schools after the third grade, test scores are persistently lower. These students are unable to catch up with the Hispanic early-arrivers.

Dropout rates are also higher among Hispanic students. Latinos who stay in NC until the age of 16 are 54 percent more likely to drop out than non-Hispanic whites. In this case, again, when comparing students with similar socioeconomic characteristics, the direction of the gap reverses. Under this condition, Hispanic students are 28 percent less likely to drop out than their white counterparts after reaching the legal dropout age.

North Carolina’s Hispanic students perform similarly to non-Hispanic whites with a comparable socioeconomic background, conditional to entering NC schools at an early age. These conditions suggest that education policymakers should take two especially vulnerable groups into account: Hispanic students who have lower socioeconomic status and those with high mobility.

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