If you stepped into a classroom at one of Fort Bend Independent School District’s campuses, you’d probably find one of the most diverse groups of students in the state.
With a 72,000-student population, the school district southwest of Houston is the most diverse among the state’s traditional, non-charter school districts. The makeup of its student population comes closest to having equal shares of the nation’s four major ethnic groups — white, black, Hispanic and Asian.
Only 18 percent of Fort Bend ISD’s students are white, and almost a quarter of students are Asian. The rest of the student population is either black or Hispanic. Though it’s the most extreme example of diversity, Fort Bend is a microcosm of the changing demographics of Texas’ 5 million-plus student population.
The makeup of the Texas public school system has become less white and poorer in recent decades, according to the most recent data from the Texas Education Agency reflected in The Texas Tribune’s Texas Public Schools Explorer. It’s a change that’s largely attributable to massive growth in the state’s Hispanic and Asian populations.
During the 2014-15 school year, well over half of the state’s 5.2 million public school students were Hispanic. That’s up from 15 years ago, when about 40 percent of the state’s 4 million public school students were Hispanic. At the same time, the Asian student population doubled, but kids of Asian descent still make up a tiny portion — 4 percent — of the statewide student population.
Since the turn of the century, the white student population has plummeted by about a third — down from 43 percent of all students in 2000 to less than 29 percent during the last school year. Meanwhile, the black student population has remained largely the same, declining slightly in the past five years to less than 13 percent of the student population in the 2014-15 school year.
While many attribute these demographic trends to immigration patterns, increasing birth rates among minority populations are actually driving the change, said former state demographer and U.S. Census Bureau director Steve Murdock, now a sociology professor at Rice University.
“Natural increase — by far that is more important,” he said. It’s not just that Hispanics have a higher birth rate, although it has declined somewhat in recent years, “it’s that they have lots of people in childbearing ages and that’s something that's not true, for example, in non-Hispanic whites.”
The trend doesn’t appear to change anytime soon, Murdock said, although he predicts that the Hispanic birth rate will decline over time as it has historically with other immigrant populations as they assimilate.
The changing demographics of Texas’ student population has mirrored those of the state, which became majority-minority between the 2000 and 2010 census counts as the total minority population in Texas topped 50 percent.
That Hispanic population boom has been “pervasive” in the state, said Murdock, occurring in all types of communities — and not just in Texas.
“It’s not just a state-level phenomena,” he said. "It is true certainly if you look at the larger, central cities of Texas, but increasingly even in suburban areas” and elsewhere.
Still, that growth hasn’t been entirely uniform. Many small, rural school districts like McLeodin northeast Texas remain predominantly white. That district is the least diverse in the state, according to the 2014-15 TEA data in the Schools Explorer, with white students making up more than 97 percent of its 380-student population.
As the state’s student population has become more diverse, it’s also become poorer. During the last school year, nearly 60 percent of the state’s public school students were considered “economically disadvantaged” — up from about half in 2000.
Economically disadvantaged is defined by the state as a student eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or eligible for other public assistance.
The four traditional, non-charter school districts — Highland Park ISD, Doss Consolidated CSD, Divide ISD and Guthrie CSD — that have no economically disadvantaged students are all majority-white schools, with Highland Park ISD having the highest share of white students at 87 percent of the student population.
Meanwhile, the five school districts where virtually the entire student population is economically disadvantaged — Damon ISD, Karnack ISD, Progreso ISD, Anthony ISD and Edcouch-Elsa ISD — are all majority-minority. Among those five, Progreso ISD and Edcouch-Elsa ISD have the highest share of minority students each with a 99.4 percent Hispanic student population.
Because most of the growth in the state’s student population is among Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students, Murdock said it’s safe to assume that most of those Latino students are poor. That is especially true, he said, because the other fastest-growing racial group — Asians — are most often wealthier than Hispanics.
The demographic changes among Texas’ student population have been at issue in an ongoing lawsuit against the state by more than 600 school districts, who argue that state lawmakers have failed to allocate enough money to educate a rapidly growing number of non-English-speaking and economically disadvantaged students, who are more expensive to educate. The Texas Supreme Court is expected to rule on the state’s appeal early next year.
Even as the student population has become poorer and more diverse, Texas’ graduation rates have risen steadily over the past half dozen years. Last school year, it outpaced every other state except Iowa.
Most gains have been among minority students, with graduation rates among white students averaging 93 percent for the past three years. The graduation rate among Asian students — the highest of any racial group for years — also has largely remained the same in recent years.
Statewide, more than 88 percent of students in the Class of 2014 earned their diplomas on time, data in the Schools Explorer shows. Among Hispanic students, nearly 86 percent graduated in four years or fewer, a 1.2-percentage-point increase from three years earlier. More African-American students — around 84 percent — are graduating on time, too.
Texas education officials have touted the uptick in graduation rates as a sign of educational success amid questions about the method the state uses to calculates the rates. Critics say it allows the state and school districts to mask true graduation numbers.
While graduation rates have increased, SAT scores have slipped substantially and remainsignificantly lower than the national average, according to data released this fall by the College Board, which administers the college entrance exam.
State education officials have said that is because more minority students are taking the test — a theory verified by the College Board, which says it is common for scores to decline as the total number of students taking it increases. Minority students typically perform worse than white students on such standardized achievement tests.
More Texas students — including minorities — are also taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, according to the Schools Explorer.
In the 2014-15 school year, nearly a quarter of all students took at least one such exam, the Schools Explorer shows. That’s up from 17 percent a decade ago. Participation rates have increased across all racial groups, but more dramatically for the two fastest-growing: Asians and Hispanics.
In the 2003-04 school year, nearly 40 percent of students who took an AP or IB exam were Asian; last school year, that figure climbed to nearly 56 percent, according to the Schools Explorer data. During the past decade, the percentage of students taking either exam who are Hispanic jumped, from about 13 percent to 21 percent.
Outgoing Education Commissioner Michael Williams has said higher student participation in such exams indicates the state is building “a college-going culture."
Disclosure: Rice University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.