Latinos, blacks, Native Americans, and other minority students still struggle to achieve academic success in Arizona, a situation that limits their future work potential, a new state report shows.
White students are doing better, but also face problems in a state with a below-average median income, higher-than-average poverty rate, and stagnant standardized test scores and dropout rates.
The facts and conclusions of the 2016 Arizona Minority Student Progress Report are bleak, with scant evidence of progress in the last few years. Produced by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center, (AMEPAC), a policy center that's part of the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, the report published on Thursday offers potential policy changes that could help, and suggests the time to act is now.
In 2012, Arizona State University's Morrison Institute studied the situation and determined that, "Arizona is at risk of becoming a second-tier state, educationally and economically."
Four years later, the new report's authors state in a summary, "Arizonans have an opportunity choice. We
can resign ourselves to becoming that second-tier state, or we can choose opportunity" by following the report's recommendations.
"Little improvement" has taken place in university eligibility rates in Arizona from 2009 to 2014, the period studied for the report. That's true for students across the board, but minority students remain stuck at lower tiers than their white peers.
"The data summarized in this report continue to demonstrate a troubling trend of a growing minority
population with a major education attainment gap, which results from a lack of access to important educational resources," the report states. Despite attention on that gap, "it has not been erased."
The high-school dropout rate has been "constant" in the last few years, with minorities dropping out at traditionally higher rates, except for Asians, who have a lower dropout rate in Arizona than white people.
AIMS test scores continue to show much lower pass rates for Native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics. White students could also use improvement:
"Only 4 in 10 high school students pass the AIMS science test, and just over 6 in 10 students pass the AIMS mathematics test," the report says. "As in the past, the consequences of not passing the AIMS test for students are severe — making it virtually impossible for them to enroll in courses that they need to become eligible for admission to one of the state’s public universities because they must enroll in classes that prepare them to retake the AIMS test in order to meet high school graduation requirements."
Most bachelor's degrees at the state’s three public universities go to white people, as could be predicted. Black people account for 3 percent of bachelor's degrees, while Native Americans and Hispanics achieve bachelor's degrees at less than half of what their population levels would predict, the report reveals.
Poverty is the over-arching problem, says Susan Carlson, AMEPAC chair.
"We have lots of minority kids that are doing quite well — they're not struggling at all, but they're at higher socioeconomic levels."
Most Arizona residents don't realize their state is so poor, she says.
As the report states, 18 percent of Arizonans live below the federal poverty threshold, which is higher than the national rate of 14.5. However, poverty levels are much higher among American Indians (39 percent), Hispanics (28 percent), or black people (25 percent.) Poverty rates for whites and Asians are 11 and 13 percent, respectively. This fact plays a large role in educational achievement, Carlson says.
"Children [who]come from poverty have higher needs ... and those needs require resources," Carlson says. "Why should you be worried about them? Well, all these kids are going to be the future of Arizona."
But most won't be the future's engineers, surgeons, and entrepreneurs, it seems: Carlson envisions a cycle of poverty that will extend far to the future, when high-tech companies shun Arizona because it can't find a highly educated workforce, and the better-off kids feel compelled to leave the state for good jobs.
Solutions include revamping how the state teaches English-language learners (ELL) students. Non-English speakers typically take ELL classes in four-hour blocks that don't leave much time to buckle down on the coursework they need to graduate, and don't always provide them with the language skills needed to comprehend science classes, Carlson says.
Another huge issue is school funding — but the report doesn't step into that quagmire. "Other reports" will connect funding — or lack of it — to the potential solutions that might bring Arizona kids to better academic achievement.
Arizona's per-student spending is near the bottom of all states. Governor Doug Ducey's plan is to have voters pass Proposition 123, which provides $3.5 billion to schools by taking more money from state trust lands over the next 10 years, but critics worry it's a short-sighted move that robs future students of the trust money.
The report also doesn't get into the issue of public charter schools, which tend to enroll fewer minority students, or vouchers for private schools.
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