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Ask Hispanic Parents: They Want Their Kids Tested

Article by Ruben Navarrette November 20, 2014 //   7 minute read

To understand where most Hispanic parents are on the topic of high stakes testing — in which student performance on standardized exams determines how schools are evaluated and how much teachers are paid — you must understand where they’ve been.

Let’s look at the numbers. There are 54 million Hispanics in the United States, and they make up about 17 percent of the U.S. population.

According to U.S. Census estimates, Hispanics will account for one in four Americans by 2040. They are now the country’s largest minority, having surpassed African-Americans in population about a decade ago. They’re also the second fastest-growing segment of Americans, after Asians.

With 10 million voters showing up in presidential election years and $1.4 trillion in annual buying power, Hispanics have left their footprint in every aspect of American life: music, film, politics, business, food, fashion, sports, pop culture, etc.   

That includes education; currently, about one in four of America’s kindergarten students are Hispanic. Two-thirds of Hispanics are Mexican or Mexican-American, and the other third is made up of people who trace their ancestry to various Caribbean and Latin American countries.   

For those who have lived in the United States for several generations — for instance, Mexican-Americans — the public schools have not always been bright and positive places filled with hope and light. Rather, they were laboratories of social inequality where teachers and administrators made judgment calls every day about who could learn and who couldn’t, and too often saddled Hispanic students with low expectations.

Where have Hispanics been? For those folks who went to school in the 1950s or 1960s, the answer to that question is: at the back of the line, in the rear of the class, on the bottom of the list.

This is the generation of Hispanic baby boomers who often got shortchanged by the public schools. They experienced everything from blatant discrimination and segregated schools to more subtle forms of tracking and ability grouping where they were steered away from college prep courses and funneled into typing, wood shop, vocational education, home economics. As a result, now that they are parents themselves, they don’t trust the public schools or those who work in them not to derail their children’s ambition.

Do you know what many Hispanic parents do trust? Empirical measures. Ways of evaluating students that just determine right and wrong answers and give out scores without paying attention to a student’s skin color or ethnic background. They trust standardized tests. And they don’t want to be told that the school or the Department of Education is giving students a pass or a waiver. In fact, if that happens, they’re not relieved. They’re outraged.

Go to the suburbs, and you’ll find parents who complain about a “one size fits all” approach of testing. They’re convinced that their children are special and unique prodigies whose brilliance can’t be captured by a uniform measuring device like a standardized test, which might hurt their self-esteem.

But if you talk to most Hispanic parents, you’ll find the opposite. They prefer a one-size-fits all approach. They want to know that their children are being evaluated on the same playing field as every other student, and they get worried when they hear that special accommodations are being made to spare their children from competing just like any other child.

As practical people, they couldn’t care less about touchy-feely concepts like preserving self-esteem or recognizing a child’s uniqueness. All they want is that their kids get a quality education and that everyone — teachers, principals, and parents — are on the same page as to what that actually means.

As a Mexican-American, this is what I believe, based on my life experience — as someone who was once a student, who worked as a teacher, and who is now a parent.

So it was good to hear from an expert who has looked at this issue with a clear analytical eye and who has come to many of the same conclusions. David Winston is the founder of The Winston Group, a Washington-DC based research and strategic planning firm. He has measured how parents feel about what is commonly discussed in education reform circles as the tension between achievement and progress.

Ask white parents how they would feel if a student started a year behind grade level but finished only half a year behind and, Winston said, a majority of them find that outcome acceptable because they focus on progress. Not so with Hispanic parents, he said, who care more achievement and recognize that whether the student in question is behind half a year or a full year, what really matters is that he is still behind.

Winston said he didn’t detect many complaints from Hispanic parents about teachers or tests or even the schools themselves. But he did find that, as a group that clearly took education  very seriously and didn’t tolerate excuses from their children or anyone else, Hispanic parents were wary about the possibility that history could repeat itself and feared that their children might be mistreated similar to the way they were.

“There was this fear that the schools would have low expectations of their children, and that this would lead to tracking,” Winston said.

Affecting change and improving lives can be a lonely endeavor. The education reform advocates who believe in accountability and defend testing as the best tool for ensuring it must sometimes feel as if they don’t have a friend in the world. Well, they have at least one important group in their corner: Hispanic parents.

 Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group, CNN Contributor, Daily Beast columnist, and author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” (Bantam). Formerly, he was also a teacher at the K-12 level, consultant to the College Board, and university instructor.