To the Editor:
The 2012 scores for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, were sobering for the United States (“Global Test Shows U.S. Stagnating,” Dec. 11, 2013). Compared with their peers in 33 other countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American teens ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading.
But the solution may be more complex than some of the enthusiasts for standardized testing suppose. The 15 years I spent developing a bilingual-immersion program in an underserved urban neighborhood convinced me that immersion students score better on standardized tests than those taught in only one language.
The students at our public charter school in Washington are taught to think, speak, read, write, and learn either in French and English or in Spanish and English. Some 69 percent qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Yet our school is classified as high-performing by the city’s public charter school board, and students significantly outperform both the city-run and charter school average on the city’s standardized math and reading tests.
Research finds benefits of foreign-language instruction beyond language proficiency, turning on its head the old prejudice that language skills take up time that otherwise could be used to master core disciplines such as math, reading, and science. A 1994 study in Kansas City, Mo., for example, found that, over time, public school students who were second-language learners had better test scores than their peers who were not. A more recent (2003) statewide study of elementary school students in Louisiana also found this. And research from Yale University in 1983 also suggests that bilingualism fosters the development of verbal and spatial abilities.
Founder and Senior Adviser
Elsie Whitlow Stokes Public Charter School
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Bilingual Programs Can Address U.S. Lag in Testing, Achievement