English-Language Learners

Reporter’s Notebook

February 18, 2004 4 min read
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AP Tests, State Policies Covered At Conference on Bilingual Education

Texas is adding a new twist to a well-known national program as a way to make education more interesting and challenging to students whose native language is not English: The state offers Advanced Placement Spanish to middle school students.

The program was featured at the annual conference of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, held here Feb. 4-7 and which drew more than 5,000 bilingual educators. The AP Spanish program, which is offered in 19 Texas school districts, was presented as a way to academically engage students who speak Spanish as their first language.

Many U.S. colleges and universities offer college credit to students who score at least a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 on AP exams, which are sponsored by the College Board. Such exams are available for Spanish language and Spanish literature. While high school juniors or seniors are usually the ones who take AP tests, the Texas Education Agency is giving the school districts extra money so they can offer rigorous Spanish classes to middle school students who are both native speakers of Spanish and from low-income families. The students can take the AP Spanish-language exam by the end of 8th grade.

The middle school AP Spanish program began in 2001. Since then, 85 percent of the 1,400 participating Texas 8th graders have scored a 3 or higher on the Spanish- language exam, according to Evelyn Levsky Hiatt, who formerly directed the program for the Texas Education Agency. She is now an Austin-based education consultant.

Ms. Hiatt said that some 8th graders who do well on the AP test may not get college credit for their work by the time they enroll in college because the exam scores may be viewed as out of date. But she said the program is “a way of jump-starting the whole college experience.”

The program enables Latino 8th graders to take advanced classes and start to see themselves as capable of college-level work, she said.

Texas has the most organized effort in the country to prepare middle school students to take the AP Spanish-language test, said Trevor Packer, the executive director of the Advanced Placement program for the College Board, last week. Schools in a few other states also provide the option.

Many states need to revise their policies that guide school districts on how they should include English-language learners in state academic tests, according to Charlene Rivera, the director of the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education at George Washington University.

Districts are increasingly relying on such state policies to figure out how to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Previously, many states had exempted English-language learners from state academic tests for the first three years the students attended U.S. schools. Now, states must show that schools are including all such students each time state exams are given, even if the students just arrived in U.S. schools.

State testing policies for English-language learners lack clarity and organization, Ms. Rivera said in a presentation in which she discussed findings of a study she conducted with Kristina Anstrom, the assistant director of the center. The study examined the policies of the 50 states and the District of Columbia and is expected to be released in early spring.

The researchers found that 46 states and the District of Columbia address accommodations of English-language learners. Altogether, states allow 75 different kinds of accommodations for English-language learners, ranging from extra time on tests to letting them read translations of test instructions or items.

But many state policies are confusing because they don’t distinguish between accommodations for students with disabilities and those for English- language learners, the researchers say.

The study found that 18 states provide combined lists of accommodations for both groups. States can take a first step toward improving their testing policies by providing separate policies for English-language learners and students with disabilities, Ms. Rivera said.

Deaf children whose parents speak a language other than English at home differ from other English-language learners in that they may enter school without knowing a language at all, observed Barbara Gerner de Garcia, an associate professor of educational foundations and research at Gallaudet University in Washington.

Ms. Gerner de Garcia, who is fluent in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and American Sign Language, presented findings here from a review of research she conducted about the teaching of reading in English to Latinos who are deaf or hard of hearing.

She found only 19 research articles that focused on the education of Latinos who are deaf or have hearing impairments. Only nine of those studies were published after 1990.

Nearly 48 percent of an estimated 42,000 school-age children who are deaf or hard of hearing are members of racial and ethnic minorities, according to a 2001-02 annual survey of children receiving deaf special education by the Gallaudet Research Institute. About 23 percent of children receiving deaf special education are Latino.

Ms. Gerner de Garcia formerly worked with some Latino deaf students as a teacher in the Boston public schools. She noted that some deaf Latinos arrive in the United States knowing sign languages other than American Sign Language, and which were developed in their home countries. Other deaf Latino children who move to the United States may exclusively use signs that were created by their individual families. “If they came with home signs—a language the family created—there is some research that shows this can be a foundation for learning other languages,” Ms. Gerner de Garcia said.

—Mary Ann Zehr

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