NAEP To Find Out If Seniors Hablan Español

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In three years, the nation's "report card" will test American students in their grasp of a language other than English.

The board that oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress has approved a Spanish-language test that will measure how well students speak, read, listen, and write in a language other than English for the first time in the 30-year history of the federal testing program.

The test's unique design will yield results that track 12th graders' mastery of skills such as conversation or reading comprehension based on the amount of time they dedicate to studying Spanish, according to William D. Schafer, an associate professor of measurement, statistics, and evaluation at the University of Maryland College Park's college of education. Mr. Schafer is a member of the advisory group that designed the assessment program.

"The American public has a right to understand what students are able to do after a minimal amount of [foreign-language] study," said Joan D. Patterson, an education specialist for foreign-language instruction for the Utah education department and another member of the design committee."

"My impression is we're going to look abysmal," Ms. Patterson said.

Even the most ambitious American high school students rarely take more than three years of Spanish, French, or German, Ms. Patterson said.

Research shows that they will need twice that much to perform business functions demanded of a U.S. diplomat or military officer serving in a non-English-speaking country, she said.


Under the plan unanimously adopted this month by the National Assessment Governing Board, NAEP officials will administer a test in Spanish because it is the most commonly taught foreign language in U.S. schools. The test will be given to English speakers who are learning Spanish as a second language as well as to those who speak Spanish in their homes.

A preliminary test of students' language skills will determine what exam to give to match their abilities.

The screening exam is needed, Mr. Schafer said, because students have a wide range of Spanish abilities. Giving a uniform exam to everyone would overwhelm some and not challenge others, yielding meaningless data, he added.

Once test-takers are divided according to their skills, they will be tested in two or three of the following areas: reading comprehension, writing ability, listening and interpreting, and conversation.

A variety of formats will be employed. Students will be asked to write essays, respond to tape-recorded prompts, and engage in conversation with a test proctor and evaluator, for instance.

The results will rank students' by the national assessment's achievement levels of "basic," "proficient," and "advanced."

Because NAEP will collect information about students' coursetaking and language background, it will be able to determine how much instruction students need to master specific skills, Mr. Schafer said.

The exam will report only national scores. It will not publish state-by-state scores, as NAEP does for reading, writing, mathematics, and science.

The Spanish test will be given only to 12th graders.

Once a Decade

The governing board, known as NAGB, chose to add Spanish to its stable of tests in 1997 and plans to offer the test once every 10 years after 2003, according to Mark D. Musick, NAGB's chairman. While some critics say NAEP should be limited to core subjects, Mr. Musick said that foreign-language instruction is vital to the future of the U.S. economy.

"We think it's a statement about the importance of language in the world in which we live," said Mr. Musick, who is the president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

Advocates for foreign-language learning would like the test to be given more often than once a decade, in languages other than Spanish, and in more grades than 12th grade. But they are pleased that for the first time there will be national data that demonstrate how well American students perform in a foreign language.

"If we could do it a little more frequently, we'd have better data," said Martin J. Smith, the supervisor of world languages for the 3,000-student Princeton (N.J.) Regional School District and another member of the design team. "In some ways, it's a miracle that we've gotten here."

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Pages 12-13

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as NAEP To Find Out If Seniors Hablan Español
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