Wilson plan turns test of kids into test of bilingual schools

Sacramento, CA—At first blush, it seems a crazy concept: Give a million kids a test with questions written in a language they do not understand.

But this is what the Legislature and Gov. Pete Wilson have decided to do with the new statewide exam that every public school student in grades 2 through 11 is supposed to take this spring.

One-fourth of the 4 million children in those grades cannot speak, read or write English fluently. Many have been in this country for only a few months. But the law says they must take these tests in English anyway.

The whole idea strikes many educators as nutty, if not frightening.

School districts in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland have so far refused to go along. They may defy the law or sue to try to overturn it.

“What are we trying to do, punish students because they don’t speak English, or measure what they know? ” asks Alan Trudell, spokesman for Garden Grove Unified, which has agreed reluctantly to administer the test.

Understand: This is not an exam designed to see how well kids from other countries are learning English. There are other tests for that. This one assesses children in reading, writing and listening, but also in math and, in the upper grades, science and history.

It is perfectly possible that a student might know how to read and write in Vietnamese _ but not in English. Or, she might be a whiz in math but speak only her native Spanish. Such students will fail this test, not because they don’t know the skills but because they won’t be able to understand the questions.

Urban districts with large numbers of children who speak limited English fear their scores will be dragged down by these students. With results posted on the Internet for all the world to see, these schools will be branded as incompetent.

California’s scores also will suffer in comparison with other states. Like all standardized tests, this one comes with national averages, or norms, developed by the publisher. But those averages were derived from a sample with fewer than 2 percent of the kids classified as speaking limited English. In California, the number is closer to 25 percent.

Why would the state do such a thing? If the goal is to see how well kids are learning math, it does seem unfair, not to mention wasteful, to test them with word problems in a language they cannot read.

But for Wilson, the test is about more than assessing those skills. The governor sees the exam not just as a way to measure what already has happened in the schools but as a tool for changing what the schools will do in the future.

Wilson thinks bilingual education as it is being practiced today eases kids into English too slowly, while concentrating on teaching them other subjects in their native languages.

Giving the tests to every kid in English, the governor believes, will pressure schools to teach their pupils English as quickly as possible. If they delay, the students’ scores in math, science and history will suffer.

“Teachers do teach to the test,” said Marian Bergeson, the former Orange County lawmaker who now serves as Wilson’s chief education adviser. “We are already hearing that teachers are speeding up English acquisition because they want to make sure their kids do well on these tests. ” So, is it foolish to give students a test filled with questions you know they cannot read or understand?

If you are simply testing the kids, perhaps.

But if you also are testing the schools, maybe not.

Sacramento Bureau Chief Daniel M. Weintraub can be reached at (714) 664-5050, Ext. 1499. E-mail him at [email protected]

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