The Effects of Spanish-Language Background on Completed Schooling and Aptitude Test Scores

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I. INTRODUCTION

Does growing up in the United States in a home where Spanish is spoken affect an individual's cognitive abilities as measured by aptitude tests? Does it have any influence on how much schooling that individual eventually acquires? The purpose of this article is to investigate these questions using data on persons of Hispanic ancestry who grew up in the United States. While there is an extensive literature linking earnings to aptitude test scores and educational attainment (two areas in which Hispanics continue to lag non-Hispanic whites), not much attention has been devoted to whether these measures of intellectual development are themselves affected by the language spoken at home. As the Hispanic share of the population in the United States continues to grow, understanding the determinants of Hispanic test scores and educational attainment is of increasing importance.

According to the Current Population Survey, there were 40.4 million Hispanics living in the United States in 2004--14.0% of the population, which represents an increase from 12.6% in 2000. The differences in educational attainment between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites are quite stark. In 2005, 25.1% of Hispanics, aged 25 and above, had less than 9 years of education, while only 3.3% of non-Hispanic whites did. At higher education levels, only 12.1% of Hispanics had a bachelor's degree or more, whereas the corresponding figure for non-Hispanic whites was 30.6%.

Differences in standardized test scores are also large. In 2004, for example, the average verbal and math SAT scores for Hispanics were 456.3 and 458.3, respectively. Correspondingly, the averages for non-Hispanic whites were 528 and 531. (1) In the two verbal Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) tests used in this article, scores for Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites are 20.5 and 26.7 on the word knowledge exam and 8.6 and 11.2 on the paragraph comprehension exam. Similar differences arise for the two math ASVAB tests we used: 13.2 and 18.4 points for the arithmetic reasoning exam and 9.9 and 13.8 points for the math knowledge exam. (2)

Related topics have been explored by various authors. For example, McManus (1990) finds that the return to English proficiency is lower in Spanish enclaves. Chiswick (1991) and Gonzalez (2000) find greater returns to speaking fluency than to reading fluency; the latter also finds a premium to writing skills over reading skills. Recently, Bleakley and Chin (2004, 2008) have addressed the possible correlation between measures of English proficiency and the error term in wage regressions by exploiting the cognitive theory that children learn languages more easily at younger ages. This hypothesis is also explored by Chiswick and Miller (2008), Chiswick, Lee, and Miller (2005), and Gonzalez (2003). For the families of Hispanic children born or raised in the United States, however, the issue is not so much whether or not their children should become fluent in English--as they overwhelmingly do--but whether they should, to the extent that they are able, expose them to Spanish. Being bilingual has obvious benefits, but being raised in a home where Spanish is spoken may have drawbacks in an English-speaking society.

To our knowledge, the economics literature has been mostly silent on the effect of speaking Spanish at home on educational attainment and aptitude test scores. Fryer and Levitt (2006) mention in passing that speaking Spanish at home has little effect on the initial gap or the trajectory of test scores between Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites, but they provide no formal results, as this was not the focus of their study. Other papers investigating ethnic and racial differences in test scores include Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor (2009) and Fryer and Levitt (2004). (3) Rosenthal, Baker, and Ginsburg (1983), from the sociology literature, use a nationally representative sample of elementary students and find a negative relationship between speaking Spanish at home and verbal and math aptitude, with the effect being stronger for the former than for the latter. …