Latino Children Start Kindergarten Behind in Math: New Report Measures the Gap, Explores Causes, Proposes Remedies

February 8, 2017


Tina Plaza-Whoriskey 


Report Makes Case for Local Policy Makers to Prioritize our Future STEM Workers

Bethesda, Md.Making Math Count More for Young Latino Children, an original analysis of data from a large, nationally representative sample of kindergartners, finds that Latino kindergartners trail their white peers by the equivalent of three months in math skills.  According to research from Child Trends’ Hispanic Institute, young children who start school behind in math, also tend to have lower rates of participation in center-based child care, fewer books in the home, and high poverty rates.

“One in four U.S. kindergartners is Latino. Given the importance of math and science to the jobs of the future, failing to address the math achievement gap will threaten our nation’s position as a global economic leader,” says Lina Guzman, director of Child Trends’ Hispanic Institute and co-author of the report.

The report includes a review of existing research on the early development of math skills in Hispanic children, and provides research-informed recommendations to help improve early math outcomes for Latino children.

Making Math Count More for Young Latino Children cites earlier research and points to studies that found that both math ability at preschool and growth in math skills during preschool and kindergarten predict math achievement in high school. But the importance of early math ability extends even further. The report refers to studies that found that children’s early math skills are a better predictor than early reading skills of later academic success. Knowledge of math at age 7 predicts socio-economic status at age 42, even more strongly than family socio-economic status at age 7 does.

Children’s ability in mathematics, which builds on what they learned in their early years, is critical to their success in school and to their future economic growth. Although Latinos make up 15 percent of the overall workforce, they are only 7 percent of the STEM workforce, according to Census Bureau figures.

Key findings:

  • At the start of kindergarten, Latino children’s math skills trail those of white students by the equivalent of 3 months.
  • Among Latino children who started the year with relatively weak math skills, those with strong executive functioning skills, which include longer attention spans and stronger self-control, made the greatest progress over the kindergarten year.
  • Much of the variation in Latino children’s math scores is explained by poverty; Latino children are more than twice as likely as white children to be living in poverty.
  • Attending center-based child care, having many children’s books at home, and frequently practicing numbers with parents are each associated with higher math achievement for Latino children starting kindergarten.
  • Latino children attending full-day kindergarten made greater progress in math than did their peers who attended half-day programs.  In 2010, 84 percent of Latino children attending kindergarten for the first time were enrolled in full-day kindergarten.

A recent report, published in an American Educational Research Association (AERA) journal found that over time there have been modest improvements in the kindergarten readiness gap between affluent and low-income students. This Child Trends Hispanic Institute study reveals the significant gap that still needs to be addressed.



  • Expand access to high-quality early care and education, and make these programs more responsive to the needs of Latino families with young children.
  • Make full-day kindergarten available to all families, regardless of where they live.
  • Adopt guidelines for early math achievement, just as most states have adopted common standards for grades K-12.

Education community:

  • Incorporate activities that strengthen cognitive and academic skills by building children’s executive functioning skills, including their ability to focus and make decisions.
  • Through two-way communication and cultural and linguistic responsiveness, encourage strong, positive relationships between parents and early care and education providers. Such relationships reinforce children’s learning.
  • Improve the quality of culturally and developmentally appropriate mathematics instruction.
  • Give greater attention to the special needs and strengths of dual language learners and their families. For example, teachers can help dual language learners by using vocabulary that is familiar to them.


  • Make math fun by capitalizing on or creating opportunities to bring number concepts into children’s play, and talk about math at home—in any language.
  • Build a collection of children’s books, including those freely available or borrowed from a library.
  • Play math games with children that will reinforce their math skills, whether it’s counting the trees you see while driving, or the number of times you see yellow, while reading a book.


About the report: The Child Trends Hispanic Institute researched and producedMaking Math Count More for Young Latino Children with the support of the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Televisa Foundation. Child Trends partnered with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO), Mathematical Association of America (MAA), National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and National Council of La Raza (NCLR) in the dissemination and outreach of the report and its findings.

About Child Trends: Child Trends is the nation’s leading research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families. For 36 years, decision makers have relied on our rigorous research, unbiased analyses, and clear communications to improve public policies and interventions that serve children and families. We have more than 120 staff in three offices and multiple locations around the country, including our headquarters in Bethesda, Md.