Academic standards
The San Diego  Union Tribune
June 5, 2005

Students must master English above all else

At first glance, it's hard to figure out if the latest controversy involving students known to the politically correct crowd as "English learners" (formerly known as LEP, or Limited English Proficient) is about testing or language or bilingual education.

In the end, what it really is about is academic accountability and the lengths to which some school districts will go to avoid it. That includes pretending to go to bat for kids, when what is really at stake is how academic assessments reflect on the adults who teach them.

Two local districts the Chula Vista Elementary District and the Sweetwater Union High School District are among 10 in the state that are suing the state of California to ensure that non-English speaking students are given tests written in their native languages instead of English.

Of course, in California, "native language" often means Spanish. But the suit also demands that tests be developed in other languages, and that oral directions on test day also be given in a students' native language.

The districts filing suit, joined as they are by the California Association for the Bilingual Education and the League of United Latin American Citizens, insist that it isn't fair or practical to require schools to test students in English when many students don't know the language. They insist that what is important is that the student know the academic content that exams such as the California Standards Tests are supposed to measure, and that this is often lost when the tests are given in English. And they say they have the law on their side, since the federal No Child Left Behind Act calls for states to give non-English students "to the extent practicable, assessments in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data."

That all sounds well and good, but there are larger and more critical issues involved here. One is the constant need to keep a watchful eye on schools to make sure they're fulfilling their obligation to teach non-English speaking students what they need to be teaching them and to hold the line against any effort to water down tests that hold schools accountable.

Then there is the question of whether non-English speaking students are learning English as thoroughly and quickly as they should be. The fact that schools are demanding that an accommodation be made for non-English speakers suggest that the answer is no.

It doesn't do any good to measure students' grasp of "content" like math, science, and history if these students don't understand the English language. In the end, that's the content that matters most.

Here's the bottom line. Students have to be proficient in English before they can be successful in our society. There is nothing wrong with being bilingual. In fact, it can be a real asset. But there is something very wrong with schools not teaching students English and then trying to find new and creative ways to camouflage that fact.