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English-Immersion Students Perform Well in Study

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Spanish-speaking students taught primarily in English are outperforming those taught mainly in Spanish, without sacrificing their native-language skills, initial results of a pilot project in Texas indicate.

A study that followed some 2,500 pupils through grades 1-3 in El Paso found that those taught using a modified form of English immersion scored higher on most standardized tests than those in the state's transitional bilingual-education program.

The El Paso Independent School District is in the third year of a five-year program designed to evaluate its "bilingual immersion" alternative to the approach mandated by the Texas Education Agency.

Students in the regular program are taught primarily in their native language in the early grades and are gradually shifted to English, while those in the alternative program study mainly in English with some Spanish-language support.

The results should not be count4ed as a victory for the "sink or swim" immersion approach, cautioned Jeanne Saunders, director of research and evaluation for the school district. She explained that the El Paso program allows students and teachers to draw on Spanish and devotes 60 to 90 minutes a day to Spanish-language development.

The district's approach "cannot be fairly compared with any other program or model," the report on the project says.

Nevertheless, the El Paso findings appear likely to contribute to the often bitter debate over the extent to which limited-English-proficient students should be taught in their native languages. Many advocates of bilingual education have differed sharply with U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett, who argues that data favoring bilingual methods over English-only approaches are lacking.

Outscored Their Counterparts

In the study, Spanish-speaking pupils in 18 schools followed the reg8ular bilingual curriculum, and those in another 18 schools received "bilingual immersion" instruction. Among the findings:

In the 1st grade, pupils in the alternative program out-scored those in the state program in every subject on the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills. In the 2nd and 3rd grades, the pupils in the alternative program outranked theircounterparts in all subjects on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Both groups scored above the national average in mathematics, and the students in the alternative program scored above the national norm in language as well.

About 81 percent of the students in both groups passed the English version of the state math test, compared with 85 percent of all students districtwide.

Although pupils in the regular program scored higher on a standardized writing test in Spanish, 97 percent of both groups had achieved the highest possible score on an oral Spanish test by the end of the 3rd grade.

The bilingual-immersion students scored above the state average in math and reading in Spanish, and the students in transitional bilingual education topped that average in reading and writing.

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