Poverty Can’t Hold Down Latino Math Scores

Published February 1, 1999

Math achievement of students from low-income families improves only when family improves, right? That assumption may be widely held by educators, but it is wrong, according to a recent study of math achievement among Latino students conducted by associate mathematics professor Luis Ortiz-Franco from Chapman University in Orange, California.

Between 1977 and 1992, child poverty among Latinos in the United States increased by 11.1 percentage points, while among whites it rose by only 5.3 percentage points. Also, between 1973 and 1992, the median family income for Latinos fell by $1,957, while for whites it rose by $3,469. Despite their growing poverty and lower income, Latino students as a whole scored much better in 1992 than in 1973 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress math test. Despite their more favorable demographic trends, comparable white students scored only marginally better.

For example, 13-year-old white students increased their NAEP math score by only 5 points between 1973 and 1992, from 274 to 279. Although 13-year-old Latino students had lower overall scores than their white peers, they increased their math score by 20 points, from 239 to 259.

Ortiz-Franco suggests that the gains may be explained by rising levels of Latino education and parental involvement. For example, eighth-grade Latino students taking the NAEP test are more likely than their white peers to report having parents who visit their classes and limit their television viewing.

“It is quite possible that these family characteristics had a stronger influence than income on the mathematics achievement of Latino students,” said Ortiz-Franco. His research appears in the book, Changing the Faces of Mathematics: Perspectives on Latinos, published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.