Tests show non-English speaking children may need more than one year of instruction
Associated Press
June 16, 2005

By Ken Maguire,  Writer  | 

BOSTON --Most children who don't speak English as their first language may need more than one year of English-only instruction before they move to regular classrooms, according to test results released Thursday.

Voter-approved state law says those students should be sent to mainstream classes after one year of "English immersion," but the first statewide test results released since the law took effect in the fall of 2003 indicatemost are not ready.

State and federal laws require schools to assess the English proficiency of all students who are identified as "limited English proficient" innearly every grade. They are tested for English skills in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

About 31,000 of the state's nearly 50,000 LEP students were tested lastfall and again this spring.

Just 10 percent of first-year LEP students in grades three and four were classified at the "transitioning" level -- basic fluency -- after the spring test. Thirty percent of the second-year students in those grades were deemed fluent and ready to be sent to mainstream classrooms.

Other grade levels were statistically similar, while high schoolers scored higher after their first year (18 percent at basic fluency) and secondyear (28 percent).

The one-year-and-out law replaced the nation's first-ever bilingual education program, which kept children in native-language instruction classroomsfor several years. Critics said these mostly urban, low-income childrensuffered in the long term.

"There are some children who can transition in one year but those are exceptional cases," said Jose M. Pinheiro, Brockton Public Schools'director of bilingual education. "Students who have been here for three years dobetter than the others."

State education Commissioner David Driscoll said he's not convinced the one-year-and-out philosophy works.

"That bears some watching," he said. "I'm not sure where statistically how true that is. Over time, hopefully we'll start to see the progress and we can bring data to that question."

Driscoll said it's too soon, however, to draw conclusions.

"The reason that it's hard to talk about whether immersion is working versus the old system is that we now have this strong system of standards and assessments that we didn't have under the previous system."

Over time, he said, the immersion philosophy will prove to be more successful.

"I think it's working. More kids are making progress," he said. "(But) We don't have the data."

Not every child who took the fall test also took the spring test, but there's "a pretty big overlap," said Kit Viator, the state Department of Educations's director of student assessment.

Driscoll has said he won't force districts to move a child out of English immersion at the end of a year, out of concern it may violate a child'sfederal civil rights.

The mandated testing is just one measure -- grades and teacherobservations are others -- local districts use in determining whether to move a childinto regular classrooms. Districts are being encouraged to make thosedecisions this summer.

Districts receive extra state and federal funds for the number of students classified as LEP, Driscoll noted.

"The system ought to encourage movement," he said.

Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, the financial force behind theballot initiative in Massachusetts -- and in California and Arizona --criticized the funding system.

"The schools get more money," he said. "If they move them into a regular classroom, they get less money."

Unz said classifications aren't as important as academic results. Nearly80 percent of LEP students passed the MCAS high school exit exam in 2004,for example.

Fifty-five percent of the state's LEP students speak Spanish as theirfirst language, followed by 9 percent speaking Portuguese. Khmer, HaitianCreole, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cape Verdean, Russian and Arabic are among otherfirst languages.