Thursday, March 01, 2007

TAKS Sets ESL Students Up for Failure

As if you needed another reason to despise TAKS, consider the dilemma facing state educators concerning students for whom English is a second language.

The U.S. Department of Education demands that students enrolled in U.S. schools for more than one year take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills English exam.

When high school-age students arrive at the Newcomers center in Birdville, they typically begin working at a second- to third-grade level, Haygood said."We start with the alphabet, if necessary," she said.

During a recent lesson, the word "random" stumped the class. Yet within two years, these students will be expected to tackle questions on the 11th-grade English TAKS exit exam that compare literature and measure revising and editing skills.

How big an issue is this for Texas schools?

During the 2005-06 school year, Texas had 711,237 students with limited English proficiency, representing 15.8 percent of the state's student enrollment.

One of the consequences of pushing the students to take tests for which they are clearly unprepared is that more schools may now be labeled low-performing.

Educators nationwide have questioned whether the new federal rules will open more doors for school vouchers.

The federal school accountability system allows parents of children at low-performing Title 1 schools -- those that have a high number of economically disadvantaged students -- to transfer to other schools. Vouchers would provide public funding that would make it easier for parents to place their children in private schools.

U.S. Department of Education officials say there is no hidden agenda, however. They defend the plan for testing students with limited English skills by saying some schools take too long to get the students up to grade level.

There is another consideration for ESL students. Studies show that students who are in bilingual education do better than students who are in English immersion classes. The early push to English actually may undermine the student's ability to successfully learn, and contribute Texas' already overwhelming drop-out rate.

But surely our own government wouldn't be setting schools up for failure, would it?

Nationwide, many educators think so. Consider this letter published last year in the Washington Post regarding the Virginia Department of Education's efforts to seek an exemption from the requirement:

To the Editor:

Why are federal officials pressing Virginia schools to test English language learners in the same way they test fluent English speakers? [Metro, October 29]. Assessments with a built-in language barrier are simply not valid for measuring what these students have learned. Nobody, including the U.S. Department of Education, seriously claims otherwise.

Mandating meaningless tests will only serve to frustrate children, demoralize their teachers, and unfairly brand their schools as “failing.”

If the No Child Left Behind Act is intended to improve public schools, how does the Bush Administration foster that goal by requiring tests that generate misinformation about student achievement? If the purpose is to discredit public schools and make way for privatization schemes, then the federal action makes a lot more sense.

James Crawford, President

Institute for Language and Education Policy

No comments: