21st-century test for schools

Millions of students with limited English


The dramatic linguistic changes sweeping California schools this decade are just a sampling of what’s to come in the 21st century.

The proportion of school children with limited ability to speak English, which grew to nearly 25 percent last year from slightly over 18 percent in 1990, almost certainly will climb unabated.

Today Latinos represent 39 percent of California’s K-12 enrollment, but 80 percent of the 1.3 million students designated “limited English proficient.” By 2005, the state Department of Finance estimates, Latinos will be the majority in public schools.

Overall, student enrollment will increase by nearly 20 percent, requiring a building boom and a hiring binge to provide enough space and teachers.

“The demographic changes that California has faced will only continue,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. “California must figure out how to educate an increasing proportion of students who don’t speak English as their first language.”

Another 1 million students will enter the schools by 2005, bringing the total to 6.4 million.

During the next eight years, the state must spend $ 50 billion to construct 44,000 new classrooms and maintain old ones, Eastin said. At least 260,000 teachers will need to be hired.

“Finding funding and space for classrooms is tough,” Eastin said. “Finding qualified teachers is tough. But finding qualified bilingual teachers may be our toughest challenge.”

Experienced educators already are scrambling to learn new ways to teach in increasingly multicultural and multilingual classrooms.

Multilingual testing?

Experts say major revisions will be needed not only in the way students are taught, but in how they are tested.

School districts may have to tailor testing to take into account the increase in the number of students who speak limited if any English.

“We may need to give increased time for students who lack English skills to take tests,” said Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University. “We will need to modify tests by removing the more difficult vocabulary, and resort to more qualitative assessment by making observations of kids and looking at portfolios.”

The state Department of Education is studying proposals to offer tests in foreign languages, a move that would mirror the direction of the federal government. A national math test, to be given to eighth-graders starting in 1999, will be offered in Spanish and English.

“Teachers, parents, politicians and administrators are going to have to rethink education to prepare for the classroom of the future,” said Richard Diaz, demographer with the California Department of Education and a former teacher. “If school districts are only set up to deal with the average English-speaking student, they’re going to have major problems.”

The rate at which students attain English skills is dropping.

In 1986, 10.5 percent of the students labeled “limited English proficient” achieved the ability to take courses without special assistance. By 1996 the figure had dropped to 6.5 percent, according to the California Department of Education.

Although Spanish is dominant in the state, 86 other primary languages are spoken, sometimes dozens in a single school.

“Teachers will need more preparation to teach the kids of the future,” Diaz said. “At the state level, we are going to have to provide more materials in more languages. There’s a whole set of strategies districts will go through to cope with more children who don’t speak English fluently. But each district will have to custom-design a strategy depending on which immigrant group settles in the area.”

The threat of dead-end jobs

From 1990 to 1996, the proportion of California public school students considered “limited English proficient,” has jumped to nearly 25 percent from just over 18 percent, an Examiner study shows.

“Looking to the future of public education in California, what worries me most is the projection of Hispanic growth,” said Mike Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University.

Latino students are not attending college “in anywhere near the numbers of whites, blacks or Asians and they are relegated to low wage, dead -end jobs,” Kirst said. “This creates an enormous challenge for schools and is potentially a very big social problem that could further bifurcate society along racial lines.”

Kirst said he believes the state’s economic health will depend partly on how Latinos do in school.

“Because there is a growing gap between wages paid to those with high school degrees and those with post-secondary degrees, unless Hispanics start going on to college, they will fall way behind in wages,” Kirst said.

College-educated employees earn 12 percent more than high school graduates, 1990 Census Bureau data show.

“When you have a huge group that, by and large, is not going on to college, they will lack the credentialing necessary to participate in tomorrow’s economy,” said Peter Morrison, a researcher with the Santa Monica -based RAND Corp., a think tank. “These kids are either going to be turned into productive, taxpaying adults, or they’re going to be a very expensive problem that requires an enormous amount of public expenditure down the line. It’s a lot more efficient to get them educated, get them speaking English and get them into jobs.”

Georges Vernez, a director at RAND, said the majority of Mexicans who immigrate to California come with a low level of education, “seven years is the average”, command low wages, and over their lifetimes make little economic progress compared to other groups, including Asians and Europeans, who started in similar levels of poverty.

“By and large, children of Mexican immigrants are now graduating from high school,” Vernez said. “That’s a positive thing. But they are less likely than any other group, slightly less than blacks, to go to college. There is a high correlation between educational attainment of children and income of parents.”

While Latinos are making steady academic advancement, they rank behind other ethnic groups in a number of areas.

Nationally, the Latino high school dropout rate, while declining, is 30 percent, compared to 8 percent for non-Latino whites and 13 percent for African Americans, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which tracks and reports information on the country’s public schools.

On the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which rates students as advanced, proficient or basic, 44 percent of non-Latino whites, 47 percent of Asian Americans, 71 percent of African Americans and 81 percent of Latinos scored “below basic.”

Only half of Latino students with limited English skills in the United States finish high school. Of those who do, a quarter go on to college. Of that number, less than 7 percent earn a degree.

“What we must keep in mind,” said Delia Pompa, director of bilingual education and minority languages affairs for the U.S. Department of Education, “is that regardless of who our public school children are, white or Hispanic, if the kids we have in school now don’t graduate and go to college, we’ll have a population ill-prepared to enter the work world and conduct themselves as responsible citizens.”

Ted Sizer, an author and former dean of the graduate school of education at Harvard, said he believes Latinos eventually will assimilate and succeed, just as other immigrant groups have done.

“When the Irish arrived in Boston in the 1840s, people said, “They have all these kids, they’re all Catholic, they don’t succeed,’ ” Sizer said. “It was saying Irish people would always behave the way the Irish did when they were just off the boat. The fact is, there is acculturation. Two generations after the family arrives with no one having a high school degree, the daughter and son go on to earn Ph.D’s.”

Gregory Schmid, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, said it’s not possible to look at projections for 2005 and know what proportion of Latinos will have just immigrated to California, and what proportion will have fully assimilated.

“That makes a big difference in the number of limited-English -proficient kids and the outlook for their academic success,” Schmid said.

Latinos to be largest ethnic group

By 2020, projections show, the general Latino population will outnumber whites, and any other ethnic group, in counties including Fresno, Imperial, Kern, Kings, Los Angeles, Madera, Merced, Monterey, Riverside, San Benito, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara and Tulare.

The changes will be felt much sooner in California’s schools.

Until the 1995-96 school year, all ethnic groups were showing steady enrollment increases. Then non-Latino white enrollment began what is projected to be a steady decline.

In mid-decade, there were around 2.1 million white students and around 2 million Latino students. By 2000, there will be 2 million white students and 2.6 million Latino students. By 2005, there will be 1.8 million white students and 3.2 million Latinos, according to the state Department of Finance.

Whites, Asians and African Americans are decreasing in numbers because of their low birth rates compared with that of Latinos, according to Kirst.

With the inexorable demographic changes, teachers will have to continue revising what they teach, and in what language.

Will class instruction be primarily in English, using props and pictures to draw in students who lack English skills? Or will students receive instruction in their primary languages, a method long favored by the California Department of Education?

“How we will teach our limited English students in the future has not been decided,” said Silvina Rubenstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “We can continue treating bilingual education as a remedial program, which is wrong. Or, looking at the next century, we can make sure that every student is bilingual and is able to read and write in two languages.”

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