Bilingual-ed debate heats up

Spanish speakers score better on state tests in their native language

Test scores released recently could add more fire to the growing debate on bilingual education.

The scores show that Spanish speakers who are learning English scored higher on Spanish versions of Colorado Student Assessment Program exams than on English versions of the test.

For example, between 2 percent and 14 percent of Spanish speakers at four levels of English proficiency met standards this year on the English version of the fourth-grade reading exam.

But 31 percent met standards on Lectura, the Spanish version.

Spanish CSAPs are offered in third- and fourth-grade reading and in fourth-grade writing.

To Ray Sanchez, a supporter of bilingual education, the superior Spanish-language scores suggest children read and write better if they first learn to read and write in their native language.

At Stein Elementary in Lakewood, where Sanchez is principal, all 16 fourth-graders who took Spanish versions of the exam met or exceeded standards in reading and writing this year.

On English versions of the exam, only 42 percent of Stein fourth-graders met or exceeded reading standards. One-fifth met or exceeded writing standards.

“They have to have their own language, which would make transitioning to English easier,” Sanchez said. “They have to have the vocabulary and the phonics piece early on.”

If they don’t?

“Frankly,” Sanchez said, “you end up with kids who are illiterate in two languages.”

But Joseph C’DeBaca, an opponent of bilingual education who teaches at Denver’s Grant Middle School, said it proves nothing that native Spanish speakers earn higher scores on any exam when tested in Spanish.

“They’re getting these skills because their primary language is Spanish,” he said. “It should be expected. I wouldn’t expect anything else.”

The real question for C’DeBaca is why native Spanish speakers lag behind other English language learners on English versions of exams.

On the 2001 fourth-grade reading exam, standards were met or exceeded among 13 percent of Spanish speakers who had been in the state three or more years and had limited English skills.

For other limited-English speakers who had been in the state for three or more years, that percentage was more than twice as high.

C’DeBaca acknowledged it’s hard to separate out social factors.

For instance, Mexicans easily move back and forth between the United States and their native land, sometimes missing school to do so. But Vietnamese and Russians are more likely to stay put because it’s so difficult and expensive to return to their homelands.

In addition, it is relatively easy to find Spanish translators and translations in Denver, while speakers of other foreign languages must often learn English fast merely to survive.

But C’DeBaca said schools also share the blame.

“The Vietnamese kids — they don’t have all these different programs and tutors,” C’DeBaca said. “They don’t have a Vietnamese CSAP. They’re immediately immersed in English.”

Therefore, C’DeBaca said, they learn English faster and better.

Even among native Spanish speakers classified as “fluent English speakers,” only 33 percent met or exceeded standards in fourth-grade reading.

For all other foreign-language speakers considered fluent in English, that percentage was 55 percent.

For now, it’s hard to use CSAP scores to draw any conclusions.

The state breaks down CSAP scores by ethnicity, race and all sorts of other characteristics of the test-taker.

But there’s limited information about which types of teaching generate the best test scores.

For instance, it’s impossible to know whether high-achieving students were taught in Spanish or English or whether they first became literate in their native languages or plunged directly into English.

Until that kind of information is available, said testing expert Lorrie Shepard, a professor at the University of Colorado, it’s difficult to use CSAP scores to prove that any teaching method works better than any other.

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