By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Hispanic-white educational achievement gap has remained wide over the past two decades, according to a new report by the Department of Education's statistical center that a Department statement calls "sobering."
The report released on Thursday by the National Center for Educational Statistics showed that since the 1990s, scores in math and reading for Hispanic students have increased but the gap between Hispanic and white students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has persisted.
"Race and ethnicity shouldn't be factors in the success of any child in America," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement. "(Hispanic students) face grave educational challenges that are hindering their ability to pursue the American dream."
The NCES compared data on the achievement gap between Hispanic and white public school students in grades 4 and 8 at the national and state levels over the past two decades to 2009, the most recent assessment year.
The national average of achievement gaps between Hispanic and white students at grades 4 and 8 in mathematics and reading is roughly 20 points on the 500-point NAEP scale, according to the report.
Hispanics are the fastest-growing population in the United States, and Hispanic students are now the largest minority group in U.S. schools. From 1990 to 2009, the national Hispanic student population increased from 6 percent to 22 percent at grade 4, and from 7 percent to 21 percent at grade 8, according to the report.
Pew Hispanic Center Associate Director Mark Lopez said that by their projections, Hispanics will comprise 30 percent of the nation's population by 2050. According to Lopez, one of every five of those at school-going age is Latino.
"The number one issue Latinos are concerned about is education -- above jobs, health care, and immigration," said Lopez, noting a Pew survey from fall 2010.
Five states and districts had smaller-than-average achievement gaps in both subjects and grades: Department of Defense Education Activity schools, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri and Wyoming.
Two states -- Connecticut and California -- had a gap larger than the nation for both grades in math, and for grade 4 reading.
Delia Pompa, senior vice president for programs for the National Council for La Raza, said that such factors as poverty, low expectations and language hit Hispanic students hard and contribute to the persistence of the achievement gap. The NCLR is the largest Latino advocacy organization in the country.
"We don't have a choice as a nation," said Pompa. "As this population is larger and then also becomes a larger part of the workforce, it's important for everybody that these children be educated well and be prepared to be productive workers and citizens."
The report included just short of all 50 states at each grade and subject. Some states, like West Virginia, did not have enough Hispanic students for a reliable sample.
In other states, the Hispanic public school student population has surpassed that of whites. In California, the District of Columbia, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, Hispanic public school students outnumber white public school students for one or both of the surveyed grades.
The report also compared data for specific groups such as those eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Over 70 percent of Hispanic students at grades 4 and 8 are eligible for the NSLP as compared to less than 30 percent of white students.
The gap between Hispanic and white students eligible for the NSLP has also grown smaller since 2003, but the gap between Hispanic students eligible and not eligible for NSLP is smaller than that between the same groups of white students.
"Low Hispanic education attainment levels aren't just a problem for the Latino community," said Juan Sepulveda, director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. "Every American has a stake in this."
(Reporting by Molly O'Toole; Editing by Jerry Norton)