Where Latino students go, so goes DISD

logoby  Holly Kuzmich

new schoolIn 2014, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings approached the Bush Institute with a unique, challenging idea: Could we create a scorecard for mayors to use in evaluating their local schools and education landscape?
Like the mayor, we share a passion for student achievement and getting data and information into the hands of parents, community members, educators and policymakers. So we’ve spent the last two years working to make that happen.

The result is called State of Our Cities: Profiles of Education Performance around the Nation. It includes data on 114 cities and allows us to chart progress in school districts, identify specific areas for improvement and see how a city compares to others across the state, country and, thanks to data from the Global Report Card, even the world.

So how does Dallas stack up?

The big point to understand about the Dallas Independent School District is that Texas’ second largest district is predominantly Hispanic. If demographics are destiny, the success of Latino students will determine the fate of the district over the next several decades.

The achievement of white and African-American students certainly matters, too. Mastering subjects like reading and math will increase their economic and social mobility. Still, Latino students will dominate DISD’s achievement patterns. Their progress will impact the types of innovators, leaders and workers Dallas produces.

That’s why paying attention to their achievement patterns is important. Drawing from the State of the Cities report, five points stand out:

1. Hispanic high school graduation rates are headed in the right direction. Eighty-seven percent of Dallas’ Hispanic students graduated from high school in 2013. That figure is up from 2012 and better than that of DISD’s white and African-American students in 2013. At the same time, we need to keep track of Texas’ high school graduation requirements. They have been loosened in recent years, which could explain some of the positive trends.

2. Hispanic students are keeping pace with and, in some cases, leading peers in comparable cities. High school graduation rates for Hispanic students in Houston and San Diego were lower than those of their peers in Dallas. And Dallas’ Hispanic students are on par with peers in those two cities on participation in advancement placement classes, which can help prepare students for college. On one metric, SAT scores, they outperformed Houston peers.

3. Reading and math scores for Hispanic students on Texas’ STAAR exams are trending downward. In 2014, 64 percent of Dallas’s Hispanic students passed Texas’ reading achievement test and 65 percent passed the math test.Both figures represent a slight downturn from reading and math scores in 2013. Texas’ passing standards have grown more demanding, but the declining figures are troubling. About one-third of Hispanic students are not learning reading and math at grade-level.

4. Too few of Dallas’ Hispanic fourth- and eighth-graders are on a college-level track when it comes to reading. Just 13 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders and 17 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders passed the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress exam at the proficient level, meaning they are reading at a level that prepares them for college. Those figures are up from 2010, which is good. But the percentages are alarmingly low for a city whose future rests upon students who are ready for some level of college beyond high school.

5. Middle school algebra completion rates show a deficit in a leading achievement indicator. Only 21 percent of Hispanic middle school students completed an algebra course in 2013-2014, the last year data was available. The completion rate was higher than in comparable Houston and San Antonio. Still, this sign is worrisome. By completing middle school algebra, students are more likely to advance on grade level in high school.

Dallas school trustee Miguel Solis says a key to dealing with these trends is making sure more Hispanic students are fluent in English before they reach pivotal points like the sixth grade, which is when they must take state tests in English. The Dallas district, he says, remains No. 1 in Texas for students whose first language is not English.

As Solis sees it, bilingual educators must be faithful to teaching what works in helping students master English, especially in early grades. The district also continually runs short of qualified bilingual teachers, so filling that gap is important.

The future leadership of Dallas, the sustainability of the city’s economic growth, and the ability of Dallas to produce workers who can think critically and solve problems depends significantly upon the progress of DISD’s students. To understand their progress, data for educators, parents, policymakers, and, importantly, the mayor is key.

Holly Kuzmich is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and senior vice president of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Twitter: @TheBushCenter

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