Schools Score Low–Cite ESL Students

October 23, 2008

Updated 10/27 (see below) 

The past month or so has seen several reports of schools posting lower test scores and singling out ESL students a one of the main causes. (for example, Des Moines, Evanston, Hattiesburg, San Diego, Sacramento, Joliet) These articles tend to follow the same storyline. If it weren’t for large and/or growing numbers of ESL students, all would be well. Each of these articles presents a more or less charitable view of the language learners (to be dealt with later), but the causes of the lower scores are generally the following.

Limited ESL Instruction
Many schools do not have dedicated language instruction for language learners. Rather, teachers come into the classroom and help individual students during the flow of the mainstream class. It’s difficult to imagine most students (and especially older ones) doing well without some kind of explicit, sequenced instrtuction about their new language. The most serious issue is students development of academic language skills (see Jim Cummins’ work) as opposed to conversational fluency.

Limited Number of ESL Teachers
Further complicating matters is the significant shortage of certified ESL teachers in most school districts. This is especially serious in districts that have not had significant ESL populations in the past. A sudden shift in demographics can leave a send a large influx of language learners to a district who has never had to address English acquisition in a concerted way.

Lack of Appreciation of Length of Time Needed to Learn a Language
Possibly the most serious challenge to any K-12 ESL program is understanding that students will need a relatively short period of time to become fluent enough to function with their classmates but will need much more time to develop the kind of academic knowledge and skills that they will be tested on. Some states limit ESL instruction to only lower grades as though no older students who immigrate do not need the same kind of classes as younger ones. Others limit the number of years that a student can take language classes to some arbitrary length of time (Oregon may be next)

I’m afraid that the scope of this blog (and my own background with adult language learners rather than children) limits proposing much in the way of solutions. Much could be addressed if there were more funding for ESL programs. That’s difficult to communicate to many parents who don’t take a very charitable view off language learners and who would prefer that the money go to other programs. The one good thing you’ll ever hear me say about No Child Left Behind is that it is raising the profile of students like English Language Learners and is sanctioning schools who don’t meet these students’ needs.

Update 10/27–Mary Ann Zehr over at Learning the Language raises some good points about this post. For example, she was absolutely on target that I missed the fact that

“the tests ELLs are taking are designed for native-English speakers and are not very good at measuring what second-language learners know and can do.”

In fact, the Evanston example above attributes much of their low scores to the fact that Illinois recently changed its policy about testing ELLs. In the past, ELLs were given a less complex test (one assumes less complex linguistically) than native English speakers.

Thanks, Mary Ann!

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ESL, Bilingual ed, and State ballot initiatives

October 2, 2008

So far, this November has ballot initiatives in 3 states dealing with immigration. Two of these will directly affect ESL teachers and programs.

In Oregon, Measure 58 would limit bilingual instruction to 2 years. Its sponsor, Bill Sizemore, pitches this as a way to force students to study harder and enter mainstream classrooms faster. This is in sharp contrast to the 5-7 years experts like Jim Cummins cite as the length of time needed to learn academic English. Sizemore’s lack of a research-backed reason for setting 2 years as the cut-off point makes you wonder where he come up with that figure. Many have already commented that this sounds more like a cost-cutting (if not anti-immigrant) tactic than anything else. A citizen review panel recently called the measure too rigid and unworkable. more coverage here

A Missouri state constitutional amendment would make English the official language of the state government. This could potentially have broad impact on ESL programs in Adult Education and Community Colleges across the state. If every encounter with the Missouri government (from Driver’s License offices to courthouses) must be in English, then there could be a spike in demand for ESL classes. Some critics are already calling this a non-issue designed only to bring more Republican voters to the polls.

The Missouri amendment is in stark contrast to the recent conference held by the Department of Justice designed to increase access to native-language materials and services such as interpreters.

It’s always difficult to parse out the motivation behind measures like these. Both could be chalked up to money-saving initiatives or as part of the English-Only movements you hear from occasionally. One thing is certain: any that pass will have immediate negative effects on people who are still English language learners.