The Spanish-speaking children who receive intense, prolonged bilingual education perform better in school, according to a study published yesterday by the U.S. Education Department.

The study of 2,000 Spanish-speaking students compared three types of bilingual education: intense, limited and almost exclusively English, said David Ramirez, who directed the study conducted by Aguirre International of San Mateo.

The researchers drew three main conclusions disputing the common belief that teaching children in their primary language hinders their learning of English. The study found:

* Children with limited English proficiency need more than three years of bilingual education, which is the amount typically financed through the federal Bilingual Education Act.

* Intense bilingual education will not slow down their acquisition of English.

* Children who were transferred out of bilingual classes after three years lost ground in math, whereas those who remained generally continued improving rapidly in math.

”We found that the children who had most of their instruction in Spanish grew faster than the average child out there when tested on the CTBS (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills),” Ramirez said.

The study was conducted from 1984 to 1988 in Southern California, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Florida.

Its findings contradict the position of the ”English-only” movement, which argues that bilingual education delays assimilation by immigrant groups. More than a dozen states, including California, have passed bills and initiatives declaring English their ”official” language.

However, said Ted Sanders, acting education secretary, ”Based on this study, we can conclude that bilingual education benefits students.” Of the three programs studied, the most common was the ”early-exit” model, in which students get about an hour a day of instruction in Spanish from kindergarten through grade 2. They are sent to mainstream classes by grade 3.

The ”immersion strategy” is the second most common program, in which teachers can speak the child’s native language but virtually all instruction is done in English.

The least common program, but the one deemed most effective by the study, was the ”late-exit” model. In that, children get at least 40 percent of instruction in their primary language through grade 6.

By the end of grade 3, students from all programs generally showed similar improvement in math, language and reading when tested in English, the study found. However, after grade 3, only students in the late-exit program ”appear to be gaining on students in the general population,” it found.

In California, more than 375,000 Spanish-speaking children have been classified as speaking only limited English. About one-third of them participate in a bilingual education program, Ramirez said.

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