Published Online: February 21, 2013

Test helps schools assess students' language needs

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Kindergartner Enrique Medieta was busy running his fingers along a world map rug in a Glen Acres Elementary classroom as his English teacher, Marge Hemmer, smiled at him. He was sitting on the part of the rug where Indiana is located. She was on South America.

"Enrique, escucho!" Hemmer said, knowing it would be silly to tell him "listen" in English. The boy's family moved from Mexico to Lafayette two weeks ago.

He's one of 1,900 local students being evaluated in English proficiency this month.

The evaluations are through a statewide test called LAS Links. The exam is required for any student whose parent indicates on a survey that a language other than English is spoken in their home.

Enrique's spot on the map was a coincidence to Hemmer, but his presence in her class is not unusual. The non-English-speaking population has grown and is growing in Greater Lafayette and across the country.

The children of that population are integrated into local classrooms and are expected to learn English rapidly.

Gabby Salazar, an aide at Glen Acres, said no matter how much in-school instruction is offered, it's a difficult transition for students to make when their families typically don't speak English in the home.

"Especially for the younger ones. They hear their classes in English and have to translate in their heads," Salazar told the Journal & Courier ( ). "The teachers think 'Oh, there's something wrong with this kid,' but he just takes longer because he's processing."

The LAS Links test assesses K-12 students on listening, speaking, reading and writing. Grade levels determine how the five versions of the test are administered.

Every year, the test results determine students' level of English proficiency on a scale of 1 to 5. A score of 5, or "fluent," has to be achieved for two consecutive years in order to test out of English-language programming.

A common objection to the test is how early it is administered. Other state-mandated standardized tests, such as ISTEP, don't begin until the third grade.

"Most kindergartners are learning the language and attending a formal school setting for the first time, but the test asks them to read and write on their own," said Brenda Ward, Lafayette School Corp.'s English-language learner coach. "Most English-speaking students that young can't even do that."

But testing does indicate strengths and weaknesses, which is useful to teachers.

"If you see that they are strong in speaking but not reading, the teacher knows that they need to work on the student's reading skills through speaking," Ward said.

With a 12.1 percent Hispanic or Latino population, the dominant alternative language in Greater Lafayette is Spanish.

In Lafayette School Corp., Ward said only five or six other languages are spoken. In West Lafayette and Tippecanoe County schools, there is more variety.

John Maylath, Tippecanoe School Corp.'s English learning coordinator, credits Purdue for the diversity. More than 50 countries are represented in the district.

"When international students come for graduate programs, they often bring their families," Maylath said. "Their children are enrolled in our schools for the period of time they're here."

Although diversity is an asset in many ways, it can limit the effectiveness of English programs. Brenda Sadeghi, an English-language teacher in West Lafayette schools, teaches students from Korea, China, Japan and Puerto Rico all in one class.

"It's challenging to meet the individual needs of every student because they vary so much in language background and English level," Sadeghi said. "You have to vary the types of lessons you offer so you can meet the students at their level."

Due to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, all school corporations receive money from the Indiana Department of Education to provide English-language instruction. They hire English teachers, aides and tutors to provide language help.

This year, Lafayette schools hired one additional English aide for every school.

At the elementary level, most programs are considered "pull-out." Students are removed from the classroom during English and extracurricular periods to work on reading, writing, listening and speaking skills in small groups.

As the students age, programs are more "push-in" focused — aides filter into regular classrooms to help language-learners as needed. At the high school level, students typically take an "English as a native language" class.

As with any program, the schools wish they had more funding to update curriculum and add staff.

Last year, every Indiana school was allotted $127.29 per limited-English student.

House Republicans proposed a two-year state budget that would increase funding for English learners by $5 million, raising the per-student allotment to $200.

The House Democratic counterproposal seeks a $10 million increase. It would guarantee $300 per English learner to every Indiana school over the biennium.

"It has been proven that if you work with our Hispanic students that may not speak English at home, but immerse them in English in the schools, they do very well on the ISTEP and other tests," state Rep. Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette, said.

Ward, the Lafayette schools English coach, said more money would mean more personnel, and therefore more improvement.

"If we had the ability to give students background and language instruction on what they should expect before they go into regular lessons, that would make the most difference," Ward said.

"It's a lot of work, but a lot of bang for your buck."


Information from: Journal and Courier,

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