Honesty cannot be optional for a strong and free society. The truth sets us free, as we pastors remind our congregations, and this is true for public life as well as private souls. Nowhere is honesty needed more today than in the discussion of justice and equity for students in public schools. There is an assumption that if our children work hard every year in school and master all of the skills expected of him or her, then they will graduate high school prepared for college level work or a job. However, Hispanic students graduate high school at a rate 10 percent lower than their white classmates, and many graduates face significant obstacles when trying to earn their college degree. We know today that almost 60% of Hispanic students entering a community college are required to pay college tuition to take high school English or math. These students almost always end up with debt and no degree.
While Hispanic students have made some gains in educational outcomes over the last 20 years, they still lag behind their non-Hispanic classmates. A recent study by Pew Research found that for the first time in 2012, the enrollment rate among Hispanic high school graduates surpassed their white peers. Sadly many are not able to finish their degree. In fact, nationally, only twenty percent of Latino adults have a postsecondary degree.
It is a matter of biblical justice that education leaders are honest about the quality of education students receive in their state since it is most often the poor who are harmed when academic promises fall short. State leaders could go a long way toward improving this situation by closing the “Honesty Gap” between what states measure as academically necessary to what national data proves.
A newly released analysis from the national nonprofit education advocacy group Achieve, reports that most states have a discrepancy of 30 points or more between the numbers of students states claimed were proficient in reading and math versus the numbers reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is considered the “gold standard” for measuring how well our students are performing nationally. Proficiency means that a student mastered the content for that grade. Instead of being honest with students who are not proficient, states let them move through the grades until they either graduate without the knowledge they need to be successful or they drop out of school.
The policy institute American Action Forum has analyzed 20 years of NAEP data and found that while both Hispanic and white students’ scores steadily improved, the Hispanic students never seem to catch up to their peers. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, in Louisiana, just 20.2 percent of Hispanic students who enter a state-run college will graduate in four years; 44 percent will graduate in six years. South Carolina’s rates are better with 36.8 percent of Hispanics graduating from college in four years and 53.3 percent graduating in six years. The longer it takes to achieve a degree, the less likely students will actually achieve the degree while taking on more tuition and more debt. We need to do better so that more students graduate successfully in less time.
Too many critics of high academic standards blame teachers, insisting that it’s their failures in the classroom that lead to failing students. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers are just as much a victim of the “Honesty Gap” as students and families. Our teachers did not have the necessary tools to adequately address students’ problems. Furthermore, when our state leaders do not have high expectations of our students, it sends a quiet message and we are steadily holding them back from reaching their full potential.
In states such as Louisiana and South Carolina the blame rests on the political leadership who do not have the courage to stand up for education reforms that will adequately prepare students for success in college or career. However, in states such as Kentucky, New York and Alabama which have adopted academic standards that can be compared across state lines, including Common Core, the results of that effort are clear.
In 2010, New York education officials acknowledged the worsening gap between their proficiency data and NAEP’s. After implementing the standards and tougher assessments to more accurately measure student academic progress, the state’s proficiency rates are more in line with NAEP. Kentucky once ranked among the worst states in the nation in terms of an “Honesty Gap”, committed to higher standards and better education outcomes over political ideology has moved the Bluegrass State into one of the top Truth Teller spots. And after instituting tougher ACT Aspire assessments, Alabama erased a 50-point discrepancy in its fourth-grade reading scores. In other words, Alabama’s teachers and parents can now be assured that fourth graders are reading at grade level and are prepared for the more challenging texts they will encounter in middle school and eventually high school.
For Hispanic students, the “Honesty Gap” is no less critical than for others. Every student deserves an equitable education, for they are all created in God’s image, and every parent deserves the truth about the quality of education in their children’s local schools.
Opponents of common academic standards will allege that these standards are not proven. Nevertheless, the success of states like Alabama and Kentucky prove the critics wrong, and reveal how non-federal, high academic standards are bettering education outcomes for all students. State leaders have a responsibility to students, educators and families to tell the truth about the quality of education. We have a responsibility, as citizens and people of faith, to demand our leaders be held accountable for closing the Honesty Gap. The truth can set us free to improve education for all students.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and the Hispanic Evangelical Association.