Educators and politicians have been trying for decades to chip away at the wide academic achievement gap between Latino students and others. Millions have been poured into programs to figure out a way to spruce up Latino test scores.

Yet, after years of effort and millions of dollars spent, Latinos high school students are still not prepared for college level work, according to results from the college entrance exam known was the ACT.

There is still a lot of ground that needs to be gained by Hispanic students in terms of what they are learning. This is a nationwide problem that has to be tackled at the national, state and school levels.

- ACT spokesperson Ed Colby

In this test that rivals the SAT and measures what a student has learned throughout their academic careers, only 13 percent of Hispanic students (and 5 percent of black students) are likely to pass typical first-year college courses in English, math, reading and science, according to ACT results. In contrast, 42 percent of Asians and 32 percent of whites met all four benchmarks.

“There is still a lot of ground that needs to be gained by Hispanic students in terms of what they are learning,” said ACT spokesperson Ed Colby. “This is a nationwide problem that has to be tackled at the national, state and school levels.”

The effort began 20 years ago, when George W. Bush came into office and started an agency within the Department of Education devoted to Hispanics. But it did not end there.

In this presidential administration alone, nearly $180 million have gone toward funding education in high-poverty areas and there is a push to increase funding and quality for early childhood education programs.

Yet the scores remain stagnant.

The benchmarks are minimum scores in each section that indicates whether a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better, or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or better, in an entry-level college course of the given subject. The sections are scored on a scale of 1 to 36. Nationally, the 2012 composite score for the ACT was 21.1. For Hispanics, it was 18.9, a modest increase of .2 over five years.

The overall trend for Hispanics meeting the benchmarks is positive. Thirteen percent of those tested met all four benchmarks this year, compared with 11 percent last year. Still, the racial difference of the scores, while alarming, is just another data point in a larger, troubling picture of educational disparity that has yet to be addressed, say some.

“We’ve been having this gap in education for many years,” said Mariela Dabbah, founder of Latinos in College, an organization that helps Latinos get into college. “We need more programs to address students earlier. We really need to address preschool education and Hispanic access to preschool education and support for elementary years.”

One reason for the low scores: the courses taken by Latinos are not rigorous or taken in the right sequence before college, according to an ACT summary. For example, students who were ready for Algebra before 9th grade and took more than three years of math had a better chance of test success than those who weren’t. Almost 21 percent of tested Latinos, however, took three years or less of math and did not fare as well.

But the picture might not entirely be grim – the ACT’s ability to forecast college readiness has been challenged.

A report released last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicated that two of the four tests – reading and science – are not good predictors of college readiness. The other two tests, math and English, more closely correlate with a student’s performance, according to the study. Latino scores follow the national trend of scoring lower on Science and English and higher on Reading and Math.

The ACT disputes the claims emphasizing that the test looks to see whether students have mastered basic skills necessary to build from.

While opponents to standardized testing caution the public against using scores such as the ACT as a sole predictor college success, they say the implications of the results reinforce long running educational problems.

“We need an approach to go after core problems like poverty,” said Robert Schaeffer of FairTest, a watchdog of the test industry. “Poor kids are at schools with fewer resources and less trained teachers. If we want to fix the problem and seriously close gaps we need to stop fooling ourselves that testing is the magic bullet.”

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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