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Uniform Bilingual Rules Lacking, Report Finds

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Washington--Estimating on the basis of a survey that there are approximately 1.3 million students with limited proficiency in English enrolled in public and private schools across the country, a new Education Department study suggests that there are still no uniform criteria at the elementary-school level for the identification and placement of such students.

"At one extreme, some districts have neither an official definition of a limited-English-proficient [lep] student, nor official entry criteria for special lep services," the report states. "At the other extreme, some districts have very specific, elaborate definitions and criteria which are uniformly applied in all district schools."

The study, conducted for the department by Development Associates Inc. and Research Triangle Institute, represents the first phase of a five-year study ordered by the Congress as part of the 1978 Amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

This first phase describes the services available to lep students, while the second phase, scheduled for completion in 1987, will evaluate the effects of those services.

"There have been many studies, but none that do quite what we're doing, which is essentially looking at bilingual education regardless of the source of funding," said Dorothy Shuler, an evaluation specialist with the department's office of planning and evaluative services.

A spokesman for the National Association for Bilingual Education said his group had not seen the study yet and had no comment.

The study's estimate of the total number of lep students in U.S. schools may prompt debate, however, since the Education Department's own biennial report to the Congress last November estimated that there are at least 2.5 million such children, and that only 10 percent are benefiting from federal bilingual-education aid. (See Education Week, Nov. 21, 1984.) Other researchers have estimated that the number is as high as 3.6 million.

Method of Study

The new study focuses on public-school children in grades K-6 in 191 school districts in 19 states, but its findings can generally be applied to all 882,000 lep students that it estimates are enrolled in grades K-6 in public schools throughout the country, Ms. Shuler said. The data were collected during the fall of 1983 by mail questionnaires, telephone interviews, and site visits.

The survey found that the typical lep student in the lower elementary-school grades was born in the United States, speaks Spanish, is from a low-income family, and has attended school exclusively in the United States.

Identification Varies

There are no federal criteria for the identification and placement of language-minority students, but under 1984 revisions to Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, schools that receive federal funding for bilingual education must report on their lep students, demonstrate how they are being served, and show how the money is being used, according to James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Association for Bilingual Education.

About 61 percent of the school districts in the survey reported that they had an official definition for a lep student, and 75 percent reported setting official entry criteria for eligibility into special language services. However, individual schools do not adhere strictly to district policies, the report notes.

For example, 7 percent of the districts, compared with 49 percent of schools, required only a single criterion to identify lep students.

Most schools use the same criteria for moving lep students out of special services that they do for placing them, the report points out, resulting in "considerable variation across schools and school districts.

"Many personnel at the school and district level who are working closely with lep students are not satisfied with the procedure they themselves are using to identify those needing special assistance," the study states.

Services Provided

Despite the problems in identifying the students, the survey found that 97 percent of districts with lep students in grades K-6 offered some special instructional services, and that about 94 percent of lep students were actually receiving those services.

However, about 12 percent of the teachers surveyed said there were additional lep students who needed special services and were not receiving them.

Type of Services Offered

Special services for lep students were typically offered in regular elementary schools rather than in magnet schools or special centers, the study states. The services were provided in regular classrooms and in specially designed classrooms.

"There are various instructional approaches to serving the needs of lep students, often with several being used in the same school," the report notes. "There are also little sound data indicating the conditions under which the various approaches are most effective."

The typical instructional program for schools where the lep students were predominantly Hispanic combined Spanish-language and English instruction.

By comparison, 91 percent of the schools whose lep students were predominantly non-Hispanic used all-English instruction, usually coupled with special assistance in English.

During the year preceeding the study, about 20 percent of all lep students were reported by school personnel to have been mainstreamed into regular classrooms, the study notes.

Personnel Differences

The report also examines the characteristics of the instructional personnel available for lep students. On the basis of the survey, it estimates that about 44,296 teachers in grades K-6 are teaching lep students, with an additional 9,000 special-education and resource-room teachers and 26,474 aides and tutors involved in such instruction.

"The quality of instructional staff providing services to lep students is far from uniform," the report states. Some 50 percent of academic teachers of lep students reported that they were able to speak a language other than English; in 88 percent of those cases, the second language was Spanish. While virtually all the instructors had elementary-level teaching credentials or certificates, only 28 percent had bilingual credentials.

The study concludes, however, that "there is a positive climate in most schools toward serving the needs of lep students. While many school personnel are harassed, overworked, and skeptical about the merits of innovative programs and further research, they were found during the course of this study to be sincerely interested in effectively serving their lep population."

Copies of the report are available from Ann Nawaz, Office of Planning, Budget and Evaluation, State and Local Grants Divison, 400 Maryland Ave. S.W., Room 4037, Washington, D.C., 20202.

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