New Jersey Eases Rules for Bilingual Education
Despite the threat of a legal challenge and strong opposition from supporters of bilingual education, the New Jersey Board of Education has unanimously approved a proposal to ease state requirements for moving students out of bilingual classes.
The new rule, which will take effect next September, requires that students taught in their native languages under the state's transitional-bilingual-education program be shifted to regular classes once they have passed an English-proficiency test.
The test currently is one of several criteria, including mastery of basic skills and evaluations by teachers, used to assess students' readiness for mainstream classes.
Saul Cooperman, state commissioner of education, first proposed the change last December. He has maintained that it would set a single, consistent standard for all school districts and prevent students from remaining in bilingual classes longer than necessary.
The current policy "has created a situation where limited-English-proficient students may remain in bilingual programs because of basic-skills problems rather than language problems," argues a statement issued by the state education department after the board's vote this month.
Under the new policy, it states, students who have been mainstreamed will, if necessary, receive supplemental remedial instruction to boost their basic skills.
Even in the face of intense criticism of the measure by a state advisory panel on bilingual education, a public ombudsman, and various education groups, members of the state board were convinced that a uniform statewide standard would be more equitable than the current system, and would not result in a "lowering of standards," said John Klagholz, the board's president.
He added that support for the measure grew after the education department agreed to consider allowing students to re-enter bilingual classes if they did not succeed in the regular program.
Although a majority of witnesses testified against the measure in hearings before the board, Mr. Klagholz said, "we are confident that the department's approach is well within the intent" of New Jersey's bilingual-education statute.
But opponents of the new standard last week continued to question its educational merit as well as its legality under state law.
"The only way to iron this out is in a court of law," said Jose Delgado, a member of the Camden school board and chairman of its bilingual-education committee.
Officials of the state public-advocate department, which raised legal questions about the proposal in a letter to the education department earlier this year, scheduled a meeting with opponents of the measure for late last week.
Participants in the session were expected to discuss "what options are available, including litigation," according to Richard Shapiro, director of the public-advocate department's division of public-interest advocacy, a state-funded law firm.
Critics of the change argue that a single criterion is inadequate to8gauge lep students' readiness for mainstream classes and that remedial instruction will not address deficiencies in their English skills.
"The bottom line is that a lot of students could be placed in the wrong programs for the wrong reasons," argued Ruth Thomas, who chairs the state advisory committee on bilingual education.
Protase Woodford, director of the languages group for the Educational Testing Service and a visiting linguist at the U.S. Naval Academy, said he had testified before the state board that a variety of academic measures and recommendations provide "far better indices than any single" criterion or test in making placement decisions.
The current system's multiple criteria give students a "fighting chance" to succeed in mainstream classes, said Jeannine Frisby, associate director of government relations for the New Jersey Education Association.
Sending students back to bilingual classes if they fall behind in the regular program would "have a devastating psychological effect," she added.
According to Concepcion Valadez, a research associate in the Center for Language Education and Research at the University of California at Los Angeles, standards set out by the American Psychological Association in 1985 call for "more than one measure to assess any kind of educational decision. " Most states adhere to that principle in making decisions on whether lep students should be moved out of bilingual classes, she said.
The education department, in a response to the public-advocate department's letter, argued that its approach was consistent with the state bilingual-education law's intent to integrate students into the regular curriculum once they are English-proficient.
The response said the current requirement that lep students perform at or above district norms on standardized reading, writing, and mathematics tests held such students "to a higher standard than other students."
Moreover, it argued, the exit requirements were at variance with the procedure used to place students in bilingual programs, which requires only an English-proficiency test.
It also contended that data cited by experts who testified against the proposal had "limited relevance" to transitional programs and failed to "persuasively demonstrate that the proposed policy would be harmful to the lep students."
The department said a study of New York City students mainstreamed into regular classes on the basis of a single English-proficiency test had found they were making progress after one year even though they scored lower on reading tests than their native English-speaking peers.
The new state policy "may be challenged, but we think it's right," Richard DiPatri, Mr. Cooperman's assistant for educational programs, said last week.
Mr. DiPatri said the department was planning to "renorm" the standardized tests most commonly used by districts in order to set acceptable cutoff scores for determining English proficiency at each grade level.