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
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.