Illiterate In Two Languages

The Issue: State gave student assessments in Spanish, too. Our view: The results are discouraging, but not conclusive.

How this for an oddity concerning the recent Colorado Student Assessments in reading and writing: Nearly 1,000 students took the tests in Spanish. Why is this odd? Mainly because the ”model content standards” that are linked to the assessments refer several times to ”English / Language Arts education,” and say such things as ”students need to know and be able to use standard English.” Even so, the state Education Department purchased a Spanish language assessment and 989 fourth-graders actually took it, about half of them in Denver.

Gov. Roy Romer and others have professed misgivings about the decision to test in Spanish; that was our first reaction, too. On reflection, though, the test may not be a bad idea. If the data are properly used, they can provide useful clues about the value of some districts’ heavy investment in special English acquisition programs, and particularly bilingual education. To short, the new assessments may help determine whether the programs are succeeding or not in teaching kids to master reading and writing in any language. The raw scores are not encouraging. Nearly 80 percent of students who took the Spanish tests were less than ”proficient” in reading, and nearly 90 percent scored poorly in writing. As Don Watson of the state Education Department observes, ”If the kid doesn’t read in his native language, the school needs to decide real quickly whether there’s any point in continuing with (his bilingual instruction) or whether to move (the student) very quickly into English language instruction.” At the moment, state officials don’t know – but do intend to find out – how many of the students who took the Spanish test and scored badly are in their first year of bilingual classes. If they’re functionally illiterate, it may only be due to a lack of good schooling in the past – often in another country. But what if a significant percentage of those students already had a year or two of bilingual courses under their belt before they took the assessment? Then, clearly, another kind of assessment needs to get under way – an assessment of the courses themselves.

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