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Latino kindergarteners start school lagging behind in math

Feb 23, 2017

Latino students are, on average, approximately three months behind their white peers in math when they start kindergarten, according to a recent report from the Child Trends Hispanic Institute.

For the report, "Making Math Count More for Young Latino Children," researchers reviewed existing research and analyzed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

Researchers cite a number of reasons for variations in early math skills, including the number of books in the home, parent education levels and the primary language spoken at home.

And poverty is almost always a contributing factor. Latino kids are roughly twice as likely to live in poverty than white children.

David Murphey is a co-author of the report. He told The Atlantic that other intangible factors also play a role:

It is likely that prejudice, both interpersonal and systemic, plays a role. We know that when teachers, parents, communities, and the culture at large hold negative stereotypes (including low academic expectations) of minority-group members, and don’t positively affirm cultural diversity, their performance suffers. This sort of bias has a long historical legacy and will not be quickly undone.

While three months may not seem like a big deal, the math gap for Latinos continues to worsen as they get older, widening to two years by eighth grade. Only 19% of Latino students in the eighth grade are proficient in math, compared to 44% of their white counterparts, according to Child Trends.

Researchers make recommendations for parents, educators and policymakers to narrow the math skills gap, including playing games with children that may reinforce their emerging executive function skills; adapting instruction, linguistically and in other ways, so it is congruent with students’ cultural backgrounds; and making full-day kindergarten available to all families, regardless of where they live. Study author Lina Guzmán told NBC News:

Latino children who attend full-day kindergarten experience greater increases in their early math skills during the year. What we found is that 87% of Latino children are already in full-day kindergarten, so we only have a little bit more to go before all Latino children are involved.

The U.S. will need 1 million more people working in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – or STEM – fields by 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nearly one-quarter of the nation's public elementary school students are Latino, a number researchers say is only growing. So if we want the U.S. to continue to hold a position as a global economic leader, we need to make sure these students are prepared to work in fields where we'll need them.