One of the big, untold stories in Florida education over the past decade has been the rising academic achievement of Hispanic students. As researcher Matt Ladner has pointed out, on the fourth grade NAEP reading test, Hispanic students in Florida now tie or outscore the statewide average for ALL students in a majority of states. Meanwhile, in high schools, Hispanic students – who made up 25 percent of all Florida graduates last year – made up more than 25 percent of all graduates who passed at least one Advanced Placement exam.
Why doesn’t this make a bigger splash in Florida, where some demographers say Hispanics could be the majority in a few decades? I’ll save my conspiracy theories for another day. The bottom line is, this trend is not only a hopeful sign for the state’s future, it’s more evidence that public schools here are rising to huge challenges.
Now, that being said, it’s also true that the overall numbers still aren’t where anybody wants them to be, and that some school districts are making bigger gains than others. Among those with flatter trend lines: the Pinellas and Hillsborough districts right here in Tampa Bay.
I bring this up because Pinellas and Hillsborough counties also happen to be the next stop for an innovative program aimed at improving Catholic schools, particularly for low-income Hispanic students.
In an effort that involves tax-credit scholarships, the Notre Dame ACE Academies will work with St. Joseph school in Tampa and Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park. I touched on this a little bit last week through a podcast interview with the program director, Christian Dallavis. But more context about the performance of Hispanic students in Tampa Bay is in order.
According to a recent Tampa Bay Times analysis of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores (full disclosure: I worked on that analysis when I was still a Times reporter), 54 percent of Hispanic students in Pinellas were reading at grade level in 2010. That put Pinellas at No. 10 among the 12 biggest districts in Florida, down from No. 6 in 2001. Meanwhile, in Hillsborough, 53 percent of Hispanic students met the bar, putting that district at No. 11, down from No. 5.
Now, I live in Pinellas, and I work in Hillsborough. I want both districts to live up to their potential. And again, to be clear and fair, both districts are making gains. I’m not going to bash them, and I’d be wary of anyone who did without taking a long, hard look at the data and the factors that may have led them to be outgained.
But at the same time, the trend lines help make the case for expanding parental choice. While Pinellas and Hillsborough work diligently to get more systemic traction, Hispanic families – if they choose to – can look to tax credit scholarships to get more traction for their kids, now. Programs like the Notre Dame ACE Academies should give them more assurance that private schools aren’t leaving quality to chance, either.
Florida schools should be proud of the rising success of Hispanic students. More parental choice will help fuel the momentum.