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Commentary: The hidden discrimination facing Hispanic students

Hispanics make up about a quarter of the U.S. student population, nearly half of whom reside in our two most-populous states - California and Texas. But while 1 in 5 U.S. students call these states home, California and Texas have access to only 4 percent of the national spots at the National Geographic Bee, the U.S. Academic Decathlon, Letters About Literature, the Presidential Scholars Program award and several other iconic academic competitions. Meanwhile, small states - such as Wyoming and Vermont, where just 0.4 percent of the nation's student population reside - are given an equal number of spaces.

Under the state-based format, in which an equal number of students from each state are selected to move on to the national round of the competition, 54 percent of the nation's student population has access to only about 20 percent of the national spots. This amounts to unjust discrimination against students who live in our most populated states.

The format is particularly unfair to Hispanics, robbing some of the United States' most disadvantaged youths of desperately needed enrichment opportunities. It's time these events give every individual student an equal shot.

Academic competitions advance students' educations at all levels of ability. They cultivate a passion for reaching beyond classroom capabilities. In addition to their recreational value, competitions engender the relationship between work and success, encouraging the exploration of new ideas and promoting social development with interaction between like-minded enthusiasts.

They are also especially beneficial for exceptional or gifted students - those who have exhausted the curriculum or resources available at their schools and need additional channels to advance their skills and talents. Low-income students who attend schools with high rates of poverty likely exhaust their schools' resources even quicker. This is made worse by their disproportionate lack of access to quality enrichment opportunities such as academic after-school and summer programs - and, of course, countless academic competitions.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. The Scripps National Spelling Bee, for example, which boasts more than 11 million annual participants (roughly half of the nation's children aged 10 to 14) uses regional competitions instead of state competitions. This format allows a higher number of students from highly populated states to make it to the national competitions. This is an improvement, but it's still inequitable. California, for instance, has roughly 73 times as many students as Wyoming but only eight times the qualifying spots.

The American Mathematics Competition program has an even better format. All participants nationwide are judged equally, per a single cutoff test score. Everyone is on the same playing field. This is the model that most competitions should use - a system that is centered on the participant, rather than the state.

The United States is a competitive engine that relies on an educated workforce and constant innovation to succeed. National competitions enhance education and spark the innovation that fuels our future. They help our youths advance their skills, talents and tenacity, propelling students to compete globally.

If there is ever a time in our lives when equal opportunity has its most significant impact, it is when we are young and malleable and believe we can accomplish anything. Denying equal access to students in competitions limits their opportunity for success and potentially extinguishes their flame of hope. The mission of equal opportunity in education should extend to national competitions for the social and economic welfare of our nation.

Written by Conrad Oberhaus. Oberhaus is a senior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill.

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