It’s no secret to educators that minority students, especially those grappling to learn the English language, don’t perform as well on the Illinois State Achievement Test.

But because those lower scores aren’t subdivided from the rest, school districts must work a little bit harder with bilingual students as they compete with other districts for the highest results possible.

The state has made an attempt to counterbalance the language deficiency. Legislation passed in 1993 allows students to skip the ISAT if they haven’t been in transitional bilingual programs for more than three years.

However, many educators feel bilingual students need even more time.

“Research indicates it takes five to seven years for the average student to become academically competitive (in English),” said Jack Fields, director of the bilingual program in Elgin Area School District U-46.

And a limited-English speaking student who enters a school district in kindergarten and must take the ISAT in third grade won’t be at nearly a disadvantage as a student who comes in at fifth grade and, in three years time, must have the fluency of an eighth-grader.

“It’s a hard test even if you’re a native English speaker and have had the benefit of five years of quality English education. It’s even harder when you didn’t speak English until you walked into the door of the school,” said David Larsen, principal of John Jay Elementary School in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59.

At his Mount Prospect school, where 60 percent of the student body has “limited English potential,” teachers have created specific programs to help prepare students for the test, Larsen said.

The school has a home reading program, where a child reads a book and a parent later confirms that with his or her signature. There is also an accelerated reading program, where students check out books, read them and then are tested on their content.

“The more students practice, the faster they grow,” Larsen said. “Everything we do is geared toward helping them perform better on tests. Literacy is the key.”

Teachers in Schaumburg Township Elementary School District 54 are discouraged from teaching to the test – using practice tests to familiarize students with the taking the test.

Instead, educators in the district teach students the concepts and material that might appear on the ISAT, said Marianne Zito, the district’s superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

At Des Plaines Elementary District 62, where 40 percent of the district’s 5,000 students don’t speak English as their primary language, officials try to downplay the test as much as possible.

“We don’t put a lot of emphasis into the ISAT test,” Robert C. Marckese, the district’s associate superintendent for instruction. “The less emphasis on it, the better.”

In fact, District 62 officials believe there’s a better assessment available: The Terra Nova test, which features a combination of multiple choice and essay questions placed together to hold students’ interest. It also provides teachers with easy to read results, district officials said.

Daily Herald staff writers Erin Holmes, Terri Tabor and Dwayne Wong contributed to this report.

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