Expert Commentary

Latino adolescents’ experiences of discrimination in high school

2011 study in Child Development on perceived discrimination among young Latinos in high school and its outcomes in educational settings.

While Latino students represent an increasing share of the public school population in the United States, they continue to struggle academically compared with their peers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the proportion of public school students who are Latino nearly doubled, rising from 12% to 23%, between 1990 and 2010. The high school dropout rate for Latino students has remained the highest of all racial groups between 1990 and 2010, however: In 2010, while the overall dropout rate was 7.4%, the dropout rate among Latinos was 15.1%.

A 2011 study published in Child Development, “Latino Adolescents’ Experiences of Discrimination Across the First Two Years of High School: Correlates and Influences on Educational Outcomes,” looks at academic achievement among Hispanic students in certain educational climates. The authors, based at the University of Texas at Austin and UCLA, sought to better understand how experiences of discrimination may affect grades and number of absences. The findings are based on questionnaires completed by 668 Latino students during 9th and 10th grade. As the researchers note, “Experiences with discrimination are now recognized as a major stressor that can take their toll on physical and mental health of ethnic minority youth as well as adults…. Adolescents who perceive themselves to be chronic targets of others’ mistreatment often lose confidence in themselves and in their ability to be self-efficacious.”

The study’s findings include:

  • The authors found an indirect relationship between discrimination and academic outcomes. Greater levels of discrimination and sharper increases in discrimination were associated with poorer perceptions of school climate at the end of 10th grade; this perception of school climate was found to be a predictor of students’ grade point averages and total absences at the end of 10th grade. The authors did not find a direct relationship between discrimination and academic outcomes.
  • The authors tested a number of ethnicity-relevant factors that might predict discrimination. This included generational status, country of origin, and language use at home and at school. Only students who translated for their limited-English-speaking parents were more likely to perceive discrimination at school. The authors call this group of students “language brokers.”
  • Reports of discrimination increased over the first two years of high school.
  • Latino students in schools that have a more ethnically diverse student body are more likely to report discrimination at the close of 10th grade.
  • In contrast, a more ethnically diverse teaching staff may create a buffer for students’ perceptions of discrimination.

With regard to the findings regarding student and staff diversity, the authors note that “these findings have implications for the concept of a critical mass of same-ethnicity peers that need to be present to help students of color navigate the high school experience when their group is a racial/ethnic minority.”

Tags: Hispanic, Latino, youth, race, civil rights