POOR performance by Hispanic students has become a major challenge for American education. A new study warns that two concurrent trends among Hispanic youths are cause for serious concern. The report, sponsored by Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza, finds that during recent years the education gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics has grown steadily wider.
While other major United States racial and ethnic groups make progress, more than 40 percent of all Hispanic students still drop out of school. As the report says:
``Hispanics are less likely than whites or blacks to complete high school; if they finish high school, they are less likely to enroll in college; and if they enroll in college, they are less likely to obtain a degree.''
Meanwhile, Hispanics have become the fastest-growing segment of the US school-age population. While the white school-age population levels off, the number of Hispanics in school will grow an estimated 55 percent between 1985 and 2000.
Unless US educators help Hispanic children achieve better performance, the overall quality of American schooling could fall, according to a number of analysts. Eventually, this could have serious consequences for America's ability to compete with Japan and Europe in industries requiring high levels of skill and research.
This issue has come to the attention of President Bush, who today will address the annual conference of La Raza, which has made education its top-priority issue.
La Raza president Raul Yzaguirre says the federal and state governments should have two priorities in addressing the problem of Hispanic education. The most important, he says, is expanded preschool education. Also critical is greater access to bilingual education, Mr. Yzaguirre says.
Preschool education, which educators say can have a dramatic impact on children's learning, has also won strong support from the nation's governors as well as the White House.
Bilingual education, however, has proved more controversial. Some advocates, such as Yzaguirre, claim it gives Hispanics and other ethnic minorities an important bridge to this nation's English-speaking society. Others claim it slows the pace of English learning, and the ability of Spanish-speaking children to get ahead in the US.
Katherine Ely, an official with US English, says many Hispanic children are being kept too long in bilingual classes - sometimes as much as seven years. Ms. Ely says US English supports some use of bilingual education, but that two years should be sufficient time for most children to gain a working ability in English.
The La Raza study, written by Denise De La Rose and Dr. Carlyle Maw, is a grim report card. It notes that in many cases, the education gaps are widening between Hispanics and the rest of the American population.
High school completion rates for non-Hispanics, for example, are 79 percent, while Hispanics graduate at a 51 percent rate - a margin of 28 points. Although Hispanics are improving their graduation rate, the rest of society is progressing much faster. Twenty years ago, the gap between Hispanics and non-Hispanics was only 19 points.
It's a similar story with college education. In 1970, 11 percent of non-Hispanics got college degrees, while 5 percent of Hispanics did. Today it is 22 percent and 10 percent - a far greater difference.
The report ``documents once again that Hispanics are the most undereducated minority in the nation,'' Yzaguirre says. ``The problem is getting worse.'' He notes: ``Hispanics enter school later, they leave it earlier, they are [more] apt to be ... demoted.''
The nation's governors, who have also made education their top priority, say one answer for all groups would be to raise the nation's standards - to demand more from students, teachers, principals, and parents.
But Yzaguirre and his La Raza colleagues contend that such a policy may only hurt Hispanic students, who already suffer widely from low self-esteem. Yzaguirre explains it this way:
``If you are a track coach, and you say to your team we want you to jump higher, and you raise the bar a little bit ... and you do nothing else, that doesn't make a better track team. What it means is that those who have had the training, the preparation, the nutrition will jump higher, and those who [haven't] will not be able to jump that bar.''
Yzaguirre worries that higher and higher standards will mean more Hispanics being demoted or held back in school. That will worsen the dropout problem he says, by shattering the self-image of young Hispanics.
Adult Hispanics also need help, the study indicates. It reports that one national survey found that 56 percent of Hispanic adults are functionally illiterate, compared with 16 percent of whites.