Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll yesterday used the release of this week’s lagging MCAS scores to propose a change in a 28-year-old law that instituted the state’s bilingual transitional education programs.
“The impact of those kids whose first language is not English is a major problem we need to address,” Driscoll said yesterday. “My main interest is to get a waiver to the main law to allow districts to employ whatever method they think is right to get kids to improve.”
Driscoll charges the state’s growing bilingual school age population, now at 45,412, with weighing down the scores in the second year of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.
“This issue is one of the major issues we’re dealing with in the Commonwealth,” Driscoll said. “I want to give (teachers) more tools to deal with these kids.”
The latest MCAS results show students with limited English skills ranked consistently worse than the other students across the state.
For example, 43 percent of fourth-graders with limited English skills failed the English portion of the test compared to 5 percent of their “regular” counterparts.
In the 10th grade, 87 percent of limited English students failed the math test, compared to 32 percent of “regular” children.
And in science, 80 percent of limited English sophomores failed testing compared to 29 percent for “regular” students.
The current bilingual law was passed in 1971 to address an influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Yesterday’s proposal, which requires an act of legislation, would allow districts to waive the mandatory three-year transitional bilingual education program.
Nearly 80 percent leave the transitional program after the required three years. The problem, said Driscoll, is that when they do leave, they still have very little skill.
Critics say the current system often reinforces foreign language and cultural barriers rather than transitioning students to English-speaking classes.
“The question is whether parents would have the option of greater immersion from the outset,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a member of the Board of Education who supports Driscoll’s proposal.
But some wonder whether the waiver is educationally sound.
Rosalie Porter, chief executive and research director of the READ Institute in Amherst, cautions against focusing on only one part of the equation.
These kids, she said are not only bilingual, but also poor families who move a lot. Those differences can take a toll on the way they learn.
“If there is across the state a record of such poor performance by bilingual children, we must look at where the problems lie,” she said yesterday. “They need more help because they don’t get it at home.”
At the same time, she advocates revamping the existing program.
“If bilingual programs are not doing what they should, maybe it’s a matter of changing the program, retraining the teachers, but we shouldn’t be talking about doing anything drastic about MCAS. It’s too soon.”
Christine Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University, supports Driscoll’s proposal. She said the three-year requirement was instituted almost randomly.
“The three-year rule is made up. It comes from nowhere, so this notion that three years is something based on research or experience is just false,” said Rossell.
But keeping students in an arbitrary three-year program isn’t helpful, she said.
“At what point is a kid better off in a mainstream versus self-contained classroom?” she said.
“My own feeling is that sometime during that first year, they understand what the teacher is saying. They’re not proficient, but they can understand.”