California test results fuel bilingual ed reformers

Armed with dramatic rises in test scores from California, those pushing to reform the Massachusetts bilingual-education system are eyeing the 2002 ballot as a way to force progress in long-stalled policy talks.

The Golden State’s transitional bilingual-education system was dismantled via a ballot initiative in 1998 and replaced with a rapid immersion model in which the state’s 1.4 million immigrant students mostly Spanish-speakers are taught only in English.

The first two years of standardized test scores, released recently, showed significant improvements in math and reading across all grades.

The news has energized Massachusetts’s bilingual reformers, whose efforts have been defeated every year following emotional hearings that often include predictions of dire consequences for non-native English speakers.

With Latino students here failing the MCAS and dropping out of school at a higher rate than any other ethnic group, Sen. Guy Glodis, D-Worcester, says reform must be a top priority.

There will be a renewed effort on my part to push this legislation through next session, said Glodis, who this year filed an unsuccessful bill to replace the transitional system with rapid immersion.

If that is not successful, ultimately we’re going to start a referendum drive to be on the ballot.

Since 1971, Massachusetts law has mandated transitional bilingual education, in which students are taught subject courses in their native languages while learning English separately over a period of three to seven years.

About 45,000 students statewide, or 5 percent of the school population, are classified as limited English proficient, according to the Department of Education.

Among Boston eighth graders who took the 1999 MCAS tests the first group of students that will be required to pass the English and math exams to graduate 40 percent of Latino students failed English, compared to 32 percent of black students and 12 percent of white students.

Seventy-seven percent of Latinos in Boston failed the math test, compared to 72 percent of blacks and 31 percent of whites.

The numbers vary, but are similarly foreboding in many other Massachusetts cities.

The architects of California’s reform initiative stand ready to bring the battle East.

Ronald Unz, chairman of the group English for the Children, said average reading scores of California’s second grade immigrant students went up 9 percent, and math scores jumped 14 points.

California’s gains should be replicable here, as well as in Arizona, where a similar initiative will be voted on this fall, he said.

Given the very encouraging results in California, the potential for a ballot initiative in Massachusetts is greatly enhanced, Unz said. I would think most of the parents in Massachusetts, especially immigrant parents,would be very happy to follow educational changes which have the potential of doubling their students’ test scores in less than two years.

Unz noted the marked contrast between California school districts that strictly enforced the reform law, and those that liberally granted waivers to students who wished to remain in transitional programs.

In Oceanside, which adhered tightly to the new law, the reading scores of limited-English third graders jumped 11 percentage points in the two years since the introduction of immersion.

In nearby Vista similar in size, demographics and socioeconomics waivers were granted to about half of all bilingual-education students.

Vista’s limited-English third graders achieved a 5-percent gain in reading scores.

Across almost all grades, Oceanside’s gains were more than double those of Vista.

The opponents of the measure said it would be an educational disaster, said Unz, a software millionaire who largely financed the campaign. Instead, the students’ test scores have risen dramatically.

But supporters of the existing program say the transitional period is necessary to alleviate students’ stress and to allow them to keep up academically while they learn a new language.

Rep. Antonio Cabral, D-New Bedford, said he entered the American public schools at age 14, speaking only Portuguese. Immersion was not a pleasant experience, and left him several years behind in classwork, he said.

The transitional approach is especially important for older students, Cabral said. Younger children absorb new languages faster, and don’t have as much ground to lose academically, whereas older students often become frustrated and drop out, he said.

Cabral said immersion may produce quick conversational fluency, but not the depth of understanding necessary for advanced schoolwork.

He said he’s open to the idea that younger kids or students with better English skills might fare better in programs other than the traditional transitional system.

But he reiterated a common complaint in the bilingual community the Education Reform Act of 1993 eliminated the Department of Education’s designated bilingual monitoring bureau, and now no one keeps tabs on the various programs.

I’m not going to lay back and allow anyone to destroy, to undermine a program that, yeah, it’s not perfect, like most things are not perfect without having the information and analysis before us in order for us to make sound decisions to make it better, Cabral said.

Rep. Alice Wolf, D-Cambridge, who came to this country as a kindergartner fleeing the Nazis, said social and cultural changes have complicated the issue.

As the only non-English-speaking child in her class, Wolf said she learned quickly to communicate with her peers.

Immigrant students today often live in neighborhoods filled with other kids who speak their native language, she said.

Parents’ determination or resistance to assimilate into American culture plays a big role, she added.

Though a supporter of transitional bilingual education, Wolf said she favors experimental approaches like the Amigos program in her Cambridge district, which pairs students and teaches each the other’s language.

In an increasingly global economy, Wolf said facility with multiple languages is an advantage especially to Bay State children who will ultimately face a foreign language MCAS test.

Any of these things can work if they’re done well and you have good parents and good teachers and the proper support systems, Wolf said. Let’s do what’s best for the children.

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