Iowa tests can’t

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In 1997, as opponents of bilingual education outlawed the program in California, Paul Vallas took a savvy political stand: He announced a crack down on bilingual education, limiting students’ participation in the program to three years. Too many Chicago students were spending too much time in bilingual education and lagged in their acquisition of English, he maintained. By acting quickly and talking tough, Vallas responded to a growing popular sentiment about bilingual education while protecting a program with staunch support in Chicago’s Latino community – at the time, 80 percent of the students in bilingual education spoke Spanish. However, many Latinos didn’t see it that way and loudly protested the limit, which then got expanded to four years, under certain circumstances.

By the time the School Board officially revised its bilingual policy, it had added a bilingual summer school program for struggling students and bilingual support for students in their first year of all-English classes.

As Catalyst Managing Editor Mario G. Ortiz reports, the policy has had its intended impact, greatly reducing the number of students in bilingual education, and has won a measure of respect from most everyone involved. Barbara Radner, director for the Center for Urban Education at DePaul University, echoes research findings that children need five years to move into English fluency, yet she acknowledges that the board’s policy has resulted in more rigorous instruction.

A complementary School Board policy, encouraging so-called dual-language programs, has made the bilingual limits easier to swallow, too. As designed, dual language provides relatively long-term instruction in both English and a student’s native language to groups of students split about equally between English learners and English speakers. Chicago’s Inter-American Magnet School is a national model. However, some of the 26 Chicago schools that claim the dual-language designation are using it mainly to extend bilingual education, CATALYST contributor Meghan Muchler Deerin reports.

While generally accepted, the board’s bilingual education policy is not without problems. As with the board’s accountability policies overall, concerns center on the use of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and whether that is pushing schools into actions that aren’t in children’s best interests. The board relies on Iowa test scores to determine a student’s command of English and, thus, when he or she must exit bilingual education, even though the test was not designed for that use. The board then evaluates schools on the basis of their exit rates. “I’m looking for improvement in the transition rate,” says Armando Almendarez, deputy chief education officer. “If not, what’s the problem here?” However, most teachers believe that for young children especially, learning skills in the native language comes first. Research, as well as people of good will, are on both sides of the issue.

Central office is in no position to say that it knows best; indeed, in most academic areas, there is no one best program. Quality of implementation matters more. What parents and educators do need from central office is data that show them whether their bilingual education programs are meeting the goals they have for their children. Are the children in dual-language Lozano School becoming literate in English and Spanish? Are the children who exit quickly from transitional bilingual education programs passing their courses and staying in school? Are there differences in such statistics between schools using the same approaches? What happens when students hit high school, and why? Getting this information about your own school is crucial; getting it about other schools, for comparison, would provide an added boost.

ABOUT US We are pleased to report that seven reporters from Catalyst and The Chicago Reporter, our sister publication, have won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for their work together on the “Chicago Matters” series published last spring. Congratulations to Dan Weissmann, Elizabeth Duffrin, Maureen Kelleher and Brett Schaeffer of Catalyst and Mick Dumke, Sarah Karp and Brian Rogal of The Reporter.