When the school board in West Chicago Elementary District 33 recently began reviewing its bilingual education program, members wanted to see the numbers.
How, they asked, were students performing on standardized tests? After a display of dozens of charts and graphs, what they got for an answer was anything but a clear picture.
While standardized testing – as maligned as it often is – generally offers some sort of baseline by which to measure progress of English-proficient students, the case is not so clear, officials found out, for the other 26 percent in the district who are still learning the language.
With a push to move students out of the program as soon as possible and state practices that restrict some bilingual testing, trying to gauge student progress through testing has been a difficult task at best, administrators say.
No one knows that better than Karen Mulattieri, a former English as a Second Language teacher who now is coordinator of the district’s bilingual education program.
What she has found in assessing bilingual education is a gap.
And the worst part of it is that the gap comes at a critical time when students are emerging from their first language and beginning to take hold of their new one, according to Mulattieri.
Two years ago, the state began assessing students with emerging English ability through a test called the Illinois Measure of Annual Growth in English, or IMAGE for short.
IMAGE has gained good marks from bilingual educators, but has, at least in its early stages, been found wanting in West Chicago.
Students can take the test for up to three years while they are exempt from state-mandated standardized tests in English.
Part of the problem, local administrators found, has been getting the test to those who are eligible. With more than 900 students involved in bilingual education, Mulattieri could locate only 22 who had previously taken the test, leaving the district with a tiny sample to measure progress.
“People are always saying we don’t believe you’re teaching enough English,” said Mulattieri. “This test is a reading and writing English test. It would really give a clear picture that our program is working.”
The other problem is that the test, as it is now offered, cannot be given to first- and second-graders, meaning some third-graders may take the IMAGE only once before using up their three-year exemption from English standardized tests, Mulattieri said.
Javier Botana, an administrator with the state board of education, said many of the difficulties with data should iron themselves out as the test becomes more established.
Other gaps, such as the lack of IMAGE testing for first- and second-graders or for those who surpass the three-year limit, are being addressed, too, he said. Eventually schools should be able to administer tests to those students in those categories if they choose to do so, he said.