Students who don’t speak English at home can catch up to native speakers and score just as well on the state’s standardized tests after a few years in the Palm Beach County School District, a study has found.
Dean Stecker, a planner in the English for Speakers of Other Languages department, compared the test scores of students who were once enrolled in ESOL classes with students who were never enrolled in ESOL. He discovered the bilingual students who had been out of the ESOL program for two years or more scored about the same as native speakers.
“It’s a whole different way of looking at these kids. They’re not dragging down scores (as popularly thought), they’re quite capable of doing work at high levels,” Stecker said. “We should feel good that these students are in our population.”
Bilingual elementary students did particularly well – actually better than native speakers in both reading, writing and math, according to the study. In the eighth and 10th grades, the bilingual students lagged a few points behind. Stecker also found Palm Beach County’s bilingual elementary students did significantly better than the state’s bilingual students on average.
He doesn’t know why yet – that’s his next job, he said.
Stecker plans to use the analysis to find out if some ESOL programs are preparing students better than others, and to set new academic standards for nonnative speakers. Those standards should be the same as native speakers, according to the data, he said.
The results didn’t really surprise Stecker, who said other studies have shown that bilingual students are very capable. A Canadian study done in the 1970s found that English-speaking students sent to a French immersion school actually had higher IQs than their monolingual neighbors, Stecker said. The researchers concluded that the bilingual students had developed better cognitive skills from learning to think two different ways.
In Florida, only students who have been in the United States for less than two years are exempt from taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or Florida Writes!
Students who have been here three years, even if they’re still enrolled in ESOL (typically, Palm Beach County non-English speakers stay three years in those special classes), do take the tests and their scores are figured into their school average.
Stecker’s analysis might suggest that the ESOL students should be exempt for a longer period than two years. According to his figures, it could take four or five years for them to catch up to their native-born peers.
“If students don’t speak English fluently, then the test doesn’t measure achievement, it measures their English proficiency,” Stecker said.
A close comparison
A study done by the Palm Beach County School District found that students who aren’t native English speakers can score as well as native speakers on standardized tests, after some time.
FLORIDA COMPREHENSIVE ACHIEVEMENT TEST SCORES FOR FOURTH-GRADE READING
Students new to America: 232 points
Students two years out of English for Speakers of Other Languages: 307
Native speakers: 298
FCAT SCORES FOR FOURTH-GRADE MATH
Students new to America: 265 points
Students two years out of ESOL: 321
Native speakers: 317
FCAT SCORES FOR EIGHTH-GRADE READING
Students new to America: 243
Students two years out of ESOL: 302
Native speakers: 313
FCAT SCORES FOR EIGHTH-GRADE MATH
Students new to America: 251
Students two years out of ESOL: 300
Native speakers: 314