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English Fluency, Attainment Linked in New NAEP Study

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Washington--Schools should develop the English competence of language-minority pupils in order to ensure their academic success, an analysis of the most extensive national assessment of Asian and Hispanic student achievement has concluded.

But the study also found that there is "little or no consistent relationship" between school achievement and the use of a language other than English at home.

The study, conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, found that Asian students--who tended to take more rigorous coursework and have more positive attitudes about schooling--outperformed their white and Hispanic peers in both reading and mathematics at all grade levels tested.

But it also found that the Hispanic stu6dents who claimed competence in English performed relatively well on the assessments, regardless of whether they spoke Spanish at home.

"It would appear that whether or not one comes from a home where a second language is frequently spoken is not an important issue in itself, but whether or not one is competent in English is," the study concludes.

"While frequency of use of one's non-English language in the home is not a variable that can be easily manipulated," it adds, "the development of English competency is manipulable and should be of high priority within school systems."

The study, written by researchers at the Educational Testing Service, which administers naep under contract to the U.S. Education Department, was completed last summer but was not formally released to the public due to budget constraints, according to officials.

"This was done on a relative shoestring," said Chester E. Finn Jr., the former assistant secretary of education for educational research and improvement.

Despite its limited distribution, Mr. Finn added, the study could play a role in the ongoing debate over the efficacy of bilingual education. While the assessment could not determine the most effective method of teaching limited-English-proficient students English, he said, it ''plainly argues what the learning objectives should be" for those students.

"English-language fluency ought to remain the primary education goal in efforts to deal with non-English-origin kids if we care about their educational achievement," Mr. Finn said.

But James J. Lyons, counsel to the National Association for Bilingual Education, warned that while "our goal has to include English-language fluency," such fluency alone is insufficient.

"There are lots of programs," he said, "that help children learn science, math, and social studies in their native language while they are learning English, so that they don't fall behind and don't drop out."

Naep is a Congressionally mandated assessment that regularly tests a national sample of students in reading, math, writing, and other subjects.

While the tests' sampling procedures yield reliable information on the performance of white and black students, naep officials said, the sample of Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans has tended to be too small to allow researchers to analyze variables associated with the achievement of those groups.

A previous ets study on the performance of language-minority students, which was based on data from the 1983-84 naep assessment, was "limited" because of the sample size, the new study notes. The earlier study, released in 1985, was sharply criticized as "misleading, oversimplified, and speculative" by Mr. Finn. (See Education Week, April 2, 1986.)

To provide "more reliable national performance data for the growing Asian and Hispanic populations," the study notes, naep conducted a special assessment in 1985-86 of 3,329 3rd graders, 4,133 7th graders, and 3,531 11th graders. The test takers included a nationally representative sample of Asian Americans and representative samples of Mexican-American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and other Hispanic students--those from the Caribbean Basin and Central and South America--attending schools with a high concentration of Hispanic pupils.

The sample also included 427 Native Americans, but that group was too small to yield reliable data, researchers said.

The study found that, in math, Asian students significantly outperformed all other groups at all grade levels, and that Hispanics tended to do substantially less well than their Asian and white peers.

One exception, it noted, was in 11th grade, where Cuban students, with an average score of 66 percent correct, performed better than all other Hispanics and nearly as well as white 11th graders.

In addition, other Hispanic 11th graders also outperformed Mexican-American and Puerto Rican students.

On the reading test, the researchers were able to draw conclusions only about the 7th graders, since the test proved to be too hard for most 3rd graders and too easy for most 11th graders.

As with the math test, the researchers found that Asian students, with an average score of 52.5 percent correct, narrowly outperformed the white students and significantly outscored the Hispanic and black students.

"The conventional wisdom is that Asians can do well in math, but can't read," noted Mr. Finn. "This shows that not to be the case."

In analyzing the possible explanations for these performance levels, the study found differences in family background, attitudes, and school experiences among ethnic groups.

For example, it found that among Hispanics, Cuban students, who were the most likely to speak Spanish at home, rated their English competence as relatively high.

Puerto Rican students in grades 7 and 11, it found, were most likely to report that they had been retained in their grade at some point in their school career. And Cuban 11th graders were more often in an academic track than their Puerto Rican and Mexican-American peers.

Asians, the study found, were generally more likely to come from families with high educational attainment, to use their non-English language seldom outside of home, to be enrolled in academic tracks, and to report doing more homework than students from other groups.

Moreover, the report observes, Asians "tended to have many school-related attitudes and behaviors that are associated with high levels of achievement--they reported that their parents had high educational aspirations for them and the students indicated a high belief in effort as a critical factor in educational success."

Differences in background and school characteristics, the study concluded, did not explain the difference between the high-performing Asians and other groups.

According to the study, these findings suggest changes schools can make in improving the performance of language-minority students.

In addition to developing students' English competence, it suggests, schools could help ensure that Hispanic students take more rigorous courses.

"Although there are many reasons why students are not enrolled in more rigorous, academic courses at the high-school level--previous academic performance in the subject area, lack of interest, poor counseling, unavailable teaching personnel, to name a few--it is important to prepare and encourage Hispanic students to enroll in these courses," the report says.

It also argues that schools should develop among students the belief that effort, not merely ability, can contribute to achievement.

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