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Test scores and Amendment 31

Veronica Whitney

“They had 23 years to show that bilingual education is an effective tool to teach English, and they haven’t,” says Rita Montero, the Colorado resident sponsor of Amendment 31. “Test scores that are coming up from the state show that kids aren’t achieving. … Spanish speakers are testing in the gutter.”

Opponents, however, blame low scores on several factors.

Within the Eagle County School District, Spanish-speaking students’ test scores for the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, have remained flat since the tests’ inception in 1997, says Assistant Superintendent John Brendza.

Scores for CSAP tests taken in Spanish – Lectura, or reading, offered to third- and fourth-graders, and Escritura, or writing, taken by fourth-graders – showed gains this year. But scores for the test taken in English show an achievement gap of 40 percent in some grades between English-speaking and Hispanic students in Eagle County.

“CSAP scores show there’s a huge discrepancy in scores between Hispanics and white students,” Brendza says. “That is why, regardless the outcome of Amendment 31, the school district is taking a comprehensive look at its second-language-acquisition programs.”

Scores aren’t everything

Scores just tell part of the story, however says Jorge Garcia of English Plus, a grassroots group opposing Amendment 31. He says scores for Hispanics are low because they include scores of children who are still learning English.

“Limited-English-speakers bring down the scores because they’re limited in English,” says Garcia, who works with the Boulder Valley Public Schools. “The real question is how do these kids do after they become English proficient after they’ve had an opportunity to learn English?”

Boulder Valley School District’s schools keep track of how limited English students do after they graduated from the current three-year-long bilingual and English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, programs.

“They scored higher than native English-speaking students, who scored 80 percent in the “proficient” and “advanced” category,” Garcia says.

In 2002, third-, fourth- and seventh-graders who recently graduated from the school’s second-language-acquisition programs scored 96 percent proficient and advanced on the reading test.

Montero, however, insists Amendment 31 provides for a particular technique known as shelter English, the best way to teach English.

Many factors

Brendza says the reasons for low scores are multiple. One principle reason for the low performance in CSAP tests, he points out, is the high percentage of transient students, mostly Hispanics.

“We have very high percent of transient students, and most of them are Hispanic,” Brendza says.

In fact, children taking the fourth-grade 2002 Lectura test who’ve been in the same school more than a year scored 42 percent the proficient and advanced category. Those scores went down to 28 percent, however, for students who have in the same school for only three months or less.

Similarly, children taking the third-grade Lectura test who’ve been in the district for more than a year scored 62 percent in proficient and advanced category while those who’ve been in the same school for no more than three months scored 46 percent.

“You get only a partial view if you look at the scores without considering the length of time the student has been in the same school,” Garcia says.

Another factor is the student’s past schooling, he adds.

“If you believe that a student who is limited-English-proficient should be compared with one who’s speaking English all the time, that isn’t a fair comparison,” Garcia says.

The biggest factor explaining the achievement gap is the students’ socioeconomic status, Garcia adds.

“Anglo and Hispanics students who are poor score lower on tests,” he says. “Another factor is the cultural differences of the Hispanic students with their teachers, he adds. “There’s a lack of connection with them.”

Is immersion the answer?

Proponents of bilingual education, Montero says, are presently segregating students.

“Those kids aren’t getting an education,” Montero says. “It’s a maintenance program where Spanish is the priority.”

Garcia, however, says Hispanic students’ performance absolutely will not be changed by Amendment 31, pointing out that after a similar measure, called Proposition 227, passed in California, the achievement gap actually widened. Test scores for English learners in California climbed as much as those of English-speaking students after California voters approved the measure in 1998.

A study conducted by the American Institutes for Research for the California Department of Education of the first four years since the program has been in place reports there has been gains for English learners. However, the study finds, those students also continue to score substantially lower than their native English-speaking peers.

Proposition 227 replaced bilingual education in California with a statewide system mandating a year of English-immersion instruction. Standardized test scores went up for both learners, native and non-native English speakers, says Lauri Burnham of the California Department of Education.

“The gap between two groups of students hasn’t narrowed, though,” Burnham says.

“The interesting point is that scores went up in districts that abandoned bilingual education as well as districts that didn’t have any bilingual program before Proposition 227,” she says. “Scores also went up in districts which kept bilingual programs through parent waivers.”

Well-implemented bilingual programs have proved to be very good, Burnham says.

Getting parents involved

In Eagle County, the school district recently consulted with a second-language acquisition expert from the Colorado Department of Education.

“She told us we should be looking at the amount of time we teach English,” Brendza says. “The consultant told us we need to be consistent with the amount of time we teach English.”

Other options are extending the teaching for English learners to after-school programs and summer school.

“We’ve already set a goal to have all students scoring 80 percent in the proficient and advanced category in three years,” he adds, “and that includes all students.”

This school year, Hispanics comprised 38 percent of the student body in the the Eagle County School District – 16 percent of those, or 741 students, are in the schools’ ESL programs.

“We need to work with the transient students and get parents more involved,” Brendza says. “Some parents work ridiculous hours and can’t have any interaction with the school or their children.”

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.


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