Immersion therapy
Boston Globe
January 10, 2006

WHEN STATE VOTERS in 2002 steered the education of immigrant children away from instruction in their own language and toward English immersion, they also established the state's first test for measuring their English skills. While it is too early to tell whether children are learning better, results from two rounds of the test are in, and they demonstrate how difficult the transition to regular classrooms will be, whatever the method of instruction. In four of the state's largest cities, students are falling far short of the state's goal of having 40 percent ready for regular classrooms after three years.

That state target is itself a telling commentary, since the 2002 law expects most students to spend one year in immersion classes and then be mainstreamed. Statewide, the actual performance is better than the goal, with 48 percent of students reaching that level after three years. But in cities with many low-income families that lack both English and other resources, the results are discouraging . In Boston, the Massachusetts English Proficiency Assessment showed just 34 percent of third-year students ready to transition into the mainstream after three years of sheltered classes. In Worcester, it was 36 percent; in Lawrence, 26 percent; in Holyoke, 30 percent.

David Driscoll, the commissioner of education, said he hasn't drawn any conclusions from the test results, which he called a base line. He said the state needs more trained and certified teachers who have specialized in English as a second language. Regular classroom teachers are getting training to deal better with students with limited English proficiency, but much remains to be done.

In addition to the MEPA test and the MCAS test, on which these students score very poorly, there is one other yardstick that might help the state improve: the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures a sampling of fourth- and eighth-grade students from each state.

Massachusetts led the nation in 2005 on the NAEP, but in a ranking just of Hispanic students from the different states, Massachusetts Hispanics ranked in the bottom half for reading in both grades. State officials should look at states whose Hispanics do better on NAEP to find out if they are using special programs that could be adopted here, or if those states simply have larger populations of self-identified Hispanics who come from families that speak mainly English at home.

Children from families with limited English ability are a growing part of the state's enrollment. Data from all the different tests should help the state improve their education. It takes no special tests, however, to know the state needs more teachers skilled n teaching English as a second language.