In every grade, in every subject, students in bilingual education programs lagged behind their classmates learning English on recent state tests.
The margins are slim – from 1 to 9 percentage points – but they exist in reading, writing and math across grades 3-10.
Supporters of a proposed statewide ballot initiative to virtually eliminate bilingual education in Colorado schools seized upon the findings.
“This is clear evidence that bilingual education is a failure,” said Rita Montero, chairwoman of English for the Children of Colorado and a former Denver School Board member.
Today, Montero’s group is expected to submit the 80,571 signatures needed to win its anti-bilingual initiative a spot on the ballot.
Opponents said results released last week from the Colorado Student Assessment Program should not be the basis for a vote.
Gully Stanford, a State Board of Education member leading a campaign called English Plus against the initiative, called it “absurd” to draw conclusions from a single year’s worth of state test results.
“To generalize in this way, to rank teaching strategies based on this kind of generalization I think ignores the individual learning needs of every kid,” he said.
Others urged caution in interpreting the results.
Carolyn Haug, testing director for the state Department of Education, said several years’ worth of data is needed to show clear patterns.
She pointed out that recent results differ from those in 2001, the only other year in which educators collected data on bilingual education, in which teaching is done in two languages, and English as a Second Language programs, in which English is taught as quickly as possible.
Then, on reading tests, students in bilingual programs outscored students in ESL programs in four grades and matched them in two others.
“I’m wondering why it was different in 2001,” Haug said. “That, to me, makes a big difference, that we saw a different pattern last year.”
Before drawing conclusions, Haug said she would ask other questions.
“The first thing I would want to know is, what else is different about the student populations?” she said. “One of the questions you’d want to look at is whether the students in the bilingual program have different levels of poverty.”
That kind of data isn’t available since educators were asked simply to check “bilingual” or “ESL” on the testing forms.
Also, in several grades, large percentages of students in both programs were not tested, presumably because their English was not strong enough. CSAP tests are available in Spanish, but only in grades 3 and 4. On the Spanish CSAP tests, students in bilingual programs outscored ESL students.
Still, Montero sees proof in this year’s results of the failure of bilingual education. “They need to move on,” she said of bilingual supporters. “They need to move on.”
The proposed initiative would amend the Colorado Constitution to require that English-language learners spend no more than a year learning English alongside children with similar English skills.
After that, they’d be sent to mainstream classes unless their parents obtain a waiver.
Currently, local school boards decide which programs are used for the nearly one in 10 Colorado students learning English. A majority of schools use ESL programs in which students spend part of the day in mainstream classes and part of the day learning English.
About 30 percent of English-language learners are taught in bilingual programs, meaning educators use children’s native language to prevent them from falling behind in other subjects while they’re learning English. Denver Public Schools uses bilingual programs, among other options.
Stanford, with the group English Plus, promises a “vigorous” campaign against the initiative. The group supports allowing local school boards to continue to decide which programs to use.
“English Plus is about choice,” Stanford said. “Any program which fails to show results is, of course, suspect, and we must analyze it closely and find out why.”