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5-Year Study Faults Placement Practices For LEP Students

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Tucson, Ariz--The types of instructional services provided to limited-English-proficient children depend primarily on local conditions and available school-district resources, not on the pupils' academic needs, concludes a U.S. Education Department study that tracked the progress of LEP elementary-school students for five years.

For local educators who determine the placement of these pupils, the study found, such factors as school and classroom size and the size of LEP enrollment outweigh such individual considerations as students' levels of English proficiency.

"English proficiency of the LEP student does play a minor role in the assignment to services, but mostly in the earlier grade levels," according to a summary of the study's findings released here last week at the annual conference of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

The researchers found significant flaws in schools' procedures for placing children in or removing them from LEP programs, and a widespread failure by schools to comply fully with district policies in this area.

In addition, they found that Spanish-speaking students, who accounted for 78 percent of the pupils studied, were far more likely to receive instruction in their native language than were other LEP students.

Native-language instruction was provided to 72 percent of the Spanish-speaking 1st graders and 59 percent of the Spanish-speaking 3rd graders studied, compared with only 16 percent of 1st graders and 11 percent of 3rd graders from other linguistic minorities.

Carmen Simich-Dudgeon, director of research and evaluation for the Education
Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, presented the findings to nabe members. The $6-million study was funded by OBEMLA and the department's planning and evaluation service.

Ms. Simich-Dudgeon told conference-goers that her office was likely to release several more studies in the near future as it gathered information intended to help make the case for reauthorization of the federal Bilingual Education Act--Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act--in 1993.

In particular, she said, the office will attempt to verify statistically the existence of a problem it has heard much about anecdotally in recent years: a critical shortage of bilingual teachers.

The issue of teacher supply and demand is "politically of great importance to us," Ms. Simich-Dudgeon said, noting that her office may use statistics verifying such a shortage to help gain more federal funding for bilingual education.

"Coming from the research community," said Ms. Simich-Dudgeon, "I have learned two things--that there is research, and there is policy, and, if you want to make changes, you have to go into both."

The research findings summarized by Ms. Simich-Dudgeon came from the National Longitudinal Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Services for Languages Minority, Limited-English-Proficient Students, conducted from 1982 to 1989.

Development Associates, an Arlington, Va., firm, collected data for the study from 1982 through 1987. The Research Triangle Institute, based in Research Triangle, N.C., analyzed the data during the following two years.

The researchers followed students from 86 schools in 18 districts, located in 10 states with significant concentrations of LEP pupils.

The study began with 5,800 1st graders and 4,500 3rd graders from various language minorities. Due to problems in data collection and the removal of children from LEP programs, the summary notes, the project ultimately compiled data on 1,768 children from the 1st-grade group and 1,423 from the 3rd-grade group, all of whom were Hispanic.

Ms. Simich-Dudgeon said those limitations forced the researchers to produce year-to-year findings, rather than data that would have documented changes over the five-year period.

Despite its limitations, she said, the study was able to provide new insights into the availability, nature, and effectiveness of instructional services for LEP students.

The study found that 97 percent of the districts with LEP students in grades K-6 offered special instructional services for them. The districts that offered no such services each had 10 or fewer LEP students.

Almost half the schools studied reported using only one criterion, such as oral-language-proficiency tests, for placing children in LEP programs. Their use of a single criterion ran counter to their districts' policies and to research findings on what works best in determining placements, the summary of the study notes.

Although most districts studied had specific criteria for entry into and exit from LEP services, the study found, most based these standards on assessment procedures the researchers deemed inadequately strict, such as staff members' judgment and oral-language-proficiency tests. Standardized tests of English-language reading and writing skills--measures considered more rigorous--were the least frequently required forms of assessment.

A mean of 3.5 foreign languages were represented in the schools studied; 64 percent of the schools with LEP students in grades 1-5 had more than one foreign language represented, and 3 percent had more than 12.

Most schools reported difficulty finding teachers who spoke and understood languages other than Spanish, according to the summary.

Among all students studied who received some instruction conducted in their native languages, Spanish-speaking students received the greatest number of hours of such instruction each week.

The Spanish-speakers averaged 7 hours of native-language instruction a week in 1st grade, compared with 4.7 hours for other groups, and 6 hours in 3rd grade, compared with 5 hours for other groups.

Forty-six percent of the 1st-grade students and 51 percent of the 3rd-grade students received instruction in regular subject areas, such as social studies, from teachers with credentials in bilingual education or English as a second language.

Twenty percent of all LEP students in grades K-6 in the schools studied were reported to have been "mainstreamed" into all-English-speaking classrooms during a given year. But the proportion of such students reassigned to mainstream settings varied dramatically, depending largely on how heavily language minorities were represented in particular schools.

Schools with fewer than 50 LEP students mainstreamed an average of 61 percent of those pupils in the course of a school year, while those with more than 50 such students mainstreamed only 14 to 20 percent.

Students who had received special instruction that enhanced English-language-arts achievement were more likely than other LEP pupils to be reassigned to regular classrooms, the study found.

In examining LEP students' achievement in English-language arts and mathematics, the researchers found that gains in performance were attributable to no single instructional method, but rather to a variety of approaches that took students' levels of English proficiency into account.

The study summary suggests that students who have a relatively high prior level of English proficiency benefit from English-language-arts instruction and from the use of English in other subject-area instruction. Students with low English proficiency and strong native-language skills, it suggests, do best when the native language is used to facilitate English acquisition and development.

For students in the earlier grades, the researchers found, yearly gains in mathematics performance, as measured on a test given in English, were more likely to be realized when instruction was mostly in English, or when additional instruction in English-language skills was provided to students learning math in their native languages.

In the later grades, they found, students did not make gains in math achievement on tests written in English until they had gained some mastery of the English language, regardless of the language in which math was taught to them.

Among other findings, the research summary reports that:

Most LEP students were in schools with primarily English-speaking children. Where LEP students were present in schools, they accounted for an average of only 12 percent of the K-6 population; in only 11 percent of the schools did they account for more than 30 percent of the K-6 students.

LEP students were more disadvantaged economically, with 91 percent being eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with 47 percent of all students in the same schools. They also were disadvantaged academically, performing below grade level in math, English skills, and native-language skills in the 1st and 3rd grades.

Almost 70 percent of all LEP pupils studied resided in one of five states. Of those, 31 percent lived in California, 20 percent in Texas, and 11 percent in New York.

Ms. Simich-Dudgeon said the Education Department is planning to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to review the quality of the methodologies used in the study.

The academy, she said, will also be asked to reanalyze the study's data in conjunction with findings from the office of planning and evaluation services' Longitudinal Study of Immersion and Other Selected Programs in Bilingual Education, scheduled to be released this year.

Meanwhile, Ms. Simich-Dudgeon said, OBEMLA is in the process of carrying out several other studies related to concerns raised by the National Longitudinal Evaluation.

She said her office was seeking a contractor to examine data from the National Center for Education Statistics' recently released Survey of Recent College Graduates to determine how many students graduated with credentials in bilingual education or instruction in English as a second language.

"We want to determine whether the government is getting its money's worth in terms of the many millions we give to the institutions of higher education for training teachers," Ms. Simich-Dudgeon said.

She added that her office plans to examine data from the NCES's Schools and Staffing Survey, a massive new study of the nation's teaching force, to learn more about the shortage of bilingual teachers.

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