For Bilingual Ed. Programs, Three Is Magic Number

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Three years is enough time to get most students who are new to English up to speed in the language, the Clinton administration believes.

What makes three such a magic number? Why not two years, or five?

Most members of the U.S. House apparently agree. So do Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and officials in Illinois, Massachusetts, and most other states that have taken a position on the matter. All have either enacted laws or support federal legislation that would require English-language learners to take state academic tests in their new language within three years.

That time frame has attracted so much agreement that it raises the question: What makes three such a magic number? Why not two years, or five?

The answer is far from clear.

"The number seems quite arbitrary, since students will learn English at different rates," said Donna Christian, the president of the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics and a researcher on the education of English-language learners. "If the concern is when students are ready to demonstrate what they know through English, any time specification is going to be right for some students and wrong for others."

The three-year mark seems to have "come out of the air," added Virginia P. Collier, a professor of bilingual, multicultural, and English-as-a-second-language education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "There is no research that shows three years is a given time frame. It's very clear it takes at least four to five years" to learn English.

Her research shows it takes a minimum of six years for most students to be tested in English on grade level in their regular school tests. And a study by Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, found that it took four to six years for a majority of students in a California district to learn academic English.

Funding Limits

Nevertheless, a bill approved overwhelmingly by the House
of Representatives last month would require schools to include limited-English-proficient students in state tests administered in English after they've been in U.S. schools for three years, with the possible extension of a fourth year in special cases.

The provision, included in a bill that would reauthorize key parts of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, wouldn't necessarily pose a problem for those students, Ms. Collier said, as long as schools "don't expect them to be at a high level." On average, her research shows, such students score at the 10th percentile on most standardized tests after two or three years in school.

If the provision is agreed to by the Senate and becomes part of the final legislation to reauthorize the ESEA, it will be the first time federal law has imposed a time limit for services to LEP students.

But the House bill also states that, under certain circumstances, schools could lose federal funding for Title VII bilingual education programs if they were unable to show that a majority of their LEP students reached English proficiency and met state standards within three years. Title VII helps pay for everything from language programs that teach LEP students all day in separate classrooms to those that give the students special help while they attend regular classes. ("Bilingual Ed. Advocates Decry Changes to Title VII,", Nov. 3, 1999.)

If the provision is agreed to by the Senate and becomes part of the final legislation to reauthorize the ESEA, it will be the first time federal law has imposed a time limit for services to LEP students.

Mr. Hakuta of Stanford calls the proposed policy "regressive," saying it would jeopardize the children who take the longest to learn English and are most in need of special services. He chaired a committee for the National Academy of Sciences that published a 1997 report, "Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children: A Research Agenda"; the report concluded that whether children were proficient in their native languages and at what age they entered U.S. schools could affect how long it took them to learn a second language.

But many federal and state officials say they have to build a time limit into legislation to prod schools to get more serious about educating children whose first language isn't English. They believe schools can speed up the amount of time they're now taking to do the job.

"If it's not three years, at what point do we say, 'It really does matter how we serve these children,?'" asked Heidi A. Ramirez, a special assistant to Marshall S. Smith, the acting deputy U.S. secretary of education.

She said the Clinton administration was well aware of research that says it can take four to seven years for students to learn English. But, she added, "we've all seen children who learn faster. There's a spectrum that suggests we can do this faster than we are now."

Based on Ms. Collier's research, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus recommended five years as a reasonable period for children to learn English and be exempted from state testing in the language.

But the House Education and the Workforce Committee, which wrote the reauthorization bill, preferred a shorter time frame.

"The fact that the president's proposal recommended three years pretty much cemented our agreement," said Victor F. Klatt, the education policy coordinator for committee Republicans. "Three years was the figure that seemed to work for everyone."

State Plans

Of the 33 states that specify a time by which LEP students must take state tests on academic content, 21 have set it at three years; 11 at two years; and one, California, as soon as they enter the school system, according to a survey conducted by Charlene Rivera, the director of the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education at George Washington University.

Some states not only test LEP students within three years, they also encourage them to leave special language programs after that period.

That is the case in Massachusetts, under a 1971 state law. Illinois has had a similar law since 1976, but for all special language programs, not just transitional bilingual education, in which students receive instruction in their native language with the goal of moving to English as soon as possible. Both laws permit students to stay in the programs longer with their parents' permission. In fact, 3.6 percent of lep students in Illinois stay in special language programs for six years or more.

What's unclear is whether the students are proficient in English and doing well academically when they leave the programs.

David P. Driscoll, the commissioner of education in Massachusetts, says they're not, but he believes the situation could be improved by changing state law to give schools more flexibility in the kinds of programs they offer.

Xavier Botana, the director of bilingual programs for the Illinois board of education, said a state study showed that Illinois schools were succeeding in teaching most LEP students to read and write as well as speak in English and meet academic content standards within three years. But he noted that the study's results were based on Illinois' previous test of state standards, which was easier than the current test.

Arizona, another state with a three-year deadline for testing lep students, does not specify how long they should be allowed to stay in special language programs. But there is increasing public sentiment to set a limit, said Patricia Likens, the spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.

Ms. Likens said schools can't afford to take as much time as researchers contend is needed to bring LEP children up to the same level as their classmates. "When we look at an academic career of 12 years, we have a short amount of time to bring those students up to speed before they've left the system," she said. "Once they've left the system and they're not proficient in English, we've lost them."

Two Extremes

Voters in California have decided that even three years is too much time to give students to learn English. Last year, they approved Proposition 227, which replaced most bilingual education programs in the state with English-immersion programs that are designed to last no more than one year. After that time, students are supposed to be transferred to mainstream classrooms.

"We believe the children will learn enough academic English in a year so they can move on to a mainstream classroom and continue to acquire English," said Sheri L. Annis, the press secretary for English for the Children, the organization that sponsored the ballot initiative. She called some researchers' view that it could take seven years for children to learn academic English "a bit absurd."

New Mexico takes a completely opposite approach.

While the state tests LEP students on academic content as soon as they have the most basic skills in English, it allows them to stay in special language programs as long as individual schools believe is necessary.

More than most states, New Mexico views the purpose of special language programs as a way for students to maintain a native language or become bilingual, explained Mary Jean Habermann Lopez, the director of multicultural education for the state.

"Some of the students are in bilingual education K-12," she said. "It's totally a local decision."

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Pages 1, 14-15

Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as For Bilingual Ed. Programs, Three Is Magic Number
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