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Gap Cited in Awareness of Students' Home Languages

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WASHINGTON--Teachers often do not know when students come from a home where a language other than English is spoken, a recently released federal study concludes.

The finding casts doubts on the adequacy of research and student-assessment mechanisms that rely heavily on teachers' judgments in examining language minorities, Denise S. Bradby, the report's author, said in an interview last week.

"If the teacher is deciding who is language-minority and who is not, that means a lot of students are being missed if the goal is to put everyone in a given program who has another language spoken in the home,'' said Ms. Bradby, who was contracted to do the study as a research associate at M.P.R. Associates in Berkeley, Calif.

The analysis, released by the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, was based on information gathered from about 3,100 Hispanic students and 1,200 Asian-American students as part of the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. It represents one of the first in-depth examinations of the academic achievement and home lives of Asian and Hispanic children nationwide.

The study, however, excludes many Asian and Hispanic children who were in special-education programs or who were deemed too limited in English proficiency to answer federal questionnaires administered as part of the NELS:88 study. Its findings, thus, may be skewed in some areas or may overstate the academic achievement of Asian and Hispanic children, the report cautions.

Moreover, it notes, the figures for individual ethnic groups, such as Cubans, Mexicans, or Vietnamese, often were significantly different from the figures for Asians or Hispanics as a whole.

Misidentification Common

The researchers surveyed two teachers of each 8th grader included in the NELS:88 study. They found that 27 percent of the Asian students were identified by at least one teacher as coming from a family in which a foreign language was spoken.

The figure was far short of the mark, however, as 73 percent of the Asian children said they came from such families.

Among the Hispanic 8th graders studied, 39 percent were identified by at least one teacher as coming from language-minority homes, but 76 percent of the students reported such exposure to a language other than English.

Ms. Bradby cautioned that some of the misidentification may occur because some children are adept at using English and speak little if any of the second language used at home.

Such children, Ms. Bradby said, would not likely be significantly harmed by being identified as coming from monolingual, English-speaking families and kept out of programs that teach English as a second language.

But the misidentifying of pupils from language-minority families may lead to underestimations of their numbers, and may deprive many of them of a chance to enroll in programs that could improve their native-language use, Ms. Bradby said.

The analysis also found discrepancies between student and teacher assessments of students' English skills, with students consistently rating themselves much higher than their teachers did.

"The teachers are comparing the students to other students and probably to the majority kids,'' Ms. Bradby said, "whereas the students may be comparing themselves to their own Spanish-language peers or their parents.''

One percent of the Asian children and 4 percent of the Hispanic children were identified as coming from homes where another language was spoken when such was not the case.

Bilingual Achievement

Ms. Bradby said most of the other findings in the study confirm previous research or the common-sense observations of bilingual educators.

But some surprises did emerge. For example, students from homes where a language other than English is spoken were found to fare about as well on mathematics and reading tests as their Hispanic and Asian peers from strictly English-speaking homes.

"There is a perception that kids from bilingual homes do worse,'' Ms. Bradby said. "That was proven not to be true, at least on these tests and with these kids.''

The study also found that Asian children were less likely to plan to go to college if they came from a home where only English was spoken.

"When you think about the cultural academic emphasis in Asian countries, this does make perfect sense,'' said Peggy Quinn, an education statistician at the N.C.E.S., who hypothesized that Asian families may put less emphasis on education as they become "Americanized.''

Copies of "Language Characteristics and Academic Achievement: A Look at Asian and Hispanic 8th Graders in NELS:88,'' are available for $11 each from New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15250-7954. The stock number is 065-000-00483-6.

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