Shorter-term bilingual education helped limited-English students churn out their best test results, but no program pushed them to the state average.

The state Department of Education released a report yesterday showing limited-English students rank below the statewide average of 49 percentile on the standardized reading test.

Their Stanford 9 scores were almost half that percentile ranking, ranging from 18 to 26 percentile among five programs.

But these figures reflect less than half of all 103,110 limited- English students in 1998-99.

Those children are exempt from standardized testing for the first three years.

Jean Favela, bilingual education director for Sunnyside Unified School District, said limited-English students are expected to perform worse than their English-speaking classmates.

“You are being judged with the same yardstick with proficient English speakers,” Favela said. “You try taking a Stanford 9 in Japanese after taking Japanese for four years. See how you do in comparison with Japanese speakers.”

Sunnyside uses the most successful and unsuccessful methods, according to the reading test scores.

In the younger grades, it uses transitional bilingual education – the highest scoring method – which aims to move students into more English as they learn in their native language. In seventh through 12th grades, Sunnyside uses a secondary bilingual education program, which produced an average of 18th percentile statewide.

Favela said she is not surprised that older students scored lower because many arrive late in their school careers, making it harder for them to grasp a new language.

Tucson Unified School District prefers the bilingual/bicultural program, a long-term method that aims for fluency in two languages. Of the five programs, that method produced the middle test average.

Leonard Basurto, TUSD’s bilingual education director, said it is hard to tell the quality of the program from these scores. Many districts call different programs by different names.

What the scores do show is that bilingual education outperforms English as a Second Language, he said.

Patricia Likens, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said she realizes limited-English students will score lower no matter what. But in some cases students who have been in programs for years rank in the bottom third, she added.

“I think it really does say that time is of the essence. You need to get these kids fluent in English as quickly as possible,” Likens said.

Statewide, more students are learning enough English to qualify for mainstream classes.

Of those who completed a series of tests, about 14 percent – or 7,312 students – were “reclassified” as English proficient in 1998- 99. That is up from about 12 percent the previous year.

Breaking the current figure down to all limited English students, about 6 percent were moved to all-English.

Bilingual education opponents often use this rate to show that limited-English students are failing in the program. A Tucson-based group, English for the Children, is collecting signatures for a November ballot measure to ban bilingual education.

Bilingual educators say not all students are expected to master English in a year.

Students are required to take the tests every other year. Before they are moved, the teacher and parent must sign off that the children are ready.

Also, many programs are designed to last several years. Local educators and researchers say it takes five to seven years for a student to master academics in a second language.

Of the five programs, the highest percentage of reclassified students, 12 percent or 199 students, came from individualized education programs by parental request. That consists of special plans drafted for parents who ask that their students be moved out of programs.

“This is a one-year assessment,” said Sen. Joe Eddie Lopez, D- Phoenix, who is pushing bilingual education legislation.

“If you multiply that by seven or eight, you will see that the vast majority of your students are being reclassified by the end of eighth grade.”

Lopez said he wishes the time period was shorter. However, he said he doubts that will happen without more resources, qualified teachers and monitoring.

Last month, Judge Alfredo Marquez of U.S. District Court ruled the state is discriminating against limited-English students by failing to allocate enough money to educate them.

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