Arizona's Best and Brightest

Reports and Publications
June 2015
Dan Hunting

Good News, Bad News, and an Opportunity

Observers of Arizona’s school systems are accustomed to an unrelenting stream of bad news. This is especially true regarding the state’s low-income and Latino students. But new research has uncovered a silver lining to the state’s perpetually cloudy educational forecast. The research shows that – contrary to common belief -- Arizona’s very best poor and Latino high school students attend and graduated from college at the same rates as their higher-income and non-Latino peers. These highly achieving students, with excellent high school grades and ACT scores in the top 10%, appear to be on the road to both educational and career success.

The ACT test is normally taken only by students who plan to go to college. However, the Helios Education Foundation arranged to give the test to tens of thousands of Arizona students – nearly all students at dozens of high schools – over several years. The results yield interesting and unexpected insights.

On every measure, Latino and low-income students who were at the top of their high school classes performed as well as their non-Latino and higher-income peers. They have college aspirations that match their classmates and attend college, go to out-of-state schools, and graduate from college at the same rates (Figure 1). These students are top performers in high school, with A-/B+ grades and ACT scores in the top 10% nationally. Whether through innate intelligence or the support of programs designed for low-income and minority students, these kids seem to be on the road to success. It should be noted that, although Latino and non-Latino students are compared here, nearly identical results are found if the low-income students of any ethnicity are compared to higher-income students.

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The good news is that the very best Latino and low-income students are doing quite well. The bad news: There aren’t as many of them as there should be. Note that there are just 225 highly achieving Latinos in the data, compared to 1,577 highly achieving non-Latinos. Just one percent of the Latino students fell into the highly achieving category, compared to seven percent of non-Latinos. Figure 2 also shows that, on the whole, Latino students are less likely to achieve the B- average (2.5 grade point average) that would make them eligible for one of the state’s public universities. Again, it’s not an issue of ethnicity: There are similar disparities between all low-income and higher-income students. Policy makers and academics have struggled for decades to find the trick to educating the nation’s low-income and minority students. Clearly, more work needs to be done.

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Finally, Arizona has an opportunity to take advantage of an untapped resource. Students with a high school GPA of 2.5 or greater are good candidates for one of the state’s public universities or community colleges. Figure 3 shows that Latino students in this category are not attending in-state or out-of-state universities at the same rate as their non-Latino classmates. But it also shows that Latinos are attending community college at a slightly higher rate (43%) than non-Latinos (40%). More research will be required to discover exactly how these students are using the community college system. They may use it as a stepping stone to university, to get technical training for a specific career, or to get an Associate’s degree. Understanding this dynamic – and this cohort of students – will be important to supporting Arizona’s future workforce and economy.

These B+ students represent a much larger chunk of today’s high school population and tomorrow’s workforce than the small number of truly brilliant students shown in Figure 1. The Helios data show good post-high school outcomes for highly achieving Latino students. If this success can be extended to the larger number of university eligible Latino and low-income students, Arizona will have made great strides towards a solid economic future.

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