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Classes merging as clock ticks on English testing
Schools hope to teach Spanish speakers faster through assimilation
The Dallas Morning News


WASHINGTON - When Patty Fair's elementary students return to school in the fall, they are going to notice some big changes.

No longer will the L.F. Blanton Elementary School's Spanish-speaking students be segregated in bilingual classes. Instead, they will be thrust into the mainstream, learning math, science and other subjects with English-proficient classmates.

That's because Ms. Fair and her colleagues are under the gun: The clock is ticking on a federal mandate to test all non-English-speaking students in English within three years of entering school.

And there is a double hook: Non-English-proficient students also must show progress in other academic subjects, including math and eventually science.

"My goal is to move the kids faster and to try and find ways to give them more support," Ms. Fair said.

The 578-student Carrollton school is not unique. Many schools nationwide are struggling to meet the testing and performance goals set out in President Bush's 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

The job is getting tougher.

After getting assessment plans in place this year, English learners must be tested for language proficiency beginning this fall. The law also requires states to show annual progress in the number of students attaining English proficiency.

"The law is insisting that we get to some places fairly quickly," said Arthur L. Coleman, a former deputy assistant education secretary in the Clinton administration.

The 2001 legislation builds on mandates in a 1994 law that many educators say was not enforced. Among other things, educators said, the absence of enforcement reflected a pattern of indifference for improving the language skills of immigrant children.

'Too-long neglected'

"It is a student group that has been too-long neglected," said Mr. Coleman, an attorney, who now advises states on implementing the new law.

Eugene Hickok, an undersecretary at the Education Department, said the law no longer allows schools to ignore non-English-speaking students. Their scores must be kept separately, and if they do not show progress, a school can be cited for improvement, a distinction that could lead to a loss of federal funds.

"In the past you would never know about it," he said. "It [the law] says these kids need to become part of your accountability system and they need to become proficient. We know it is tough, we know it takes time, but they should be part of the success."

Experts said U.S. schools will only face greater challenges with non-English-speaking students. According to a report by the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, one in five students younger than 18 is the child of an immigrant, a number that has tripled over a generation and is expected to continue growing.

It is a challenge also faced by schools outside traditional immigrant states. The commission, a civil rights advocacy group, reported that during the 1990s, the immigrant population grew at twice the pace in nontraditional states as it did in the six that receive the most newcomers.

Critics of the president's program expressed support for applying the law's performance and accountability mandates to English proficiency. But they raised questions about its implementation, questioning the fast pace, budget constraints and the ability of schools to develop meaningful tests.

TAKS noted

"We very much believe that unless you hold someone accountable, they will be left behind," said Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, noting that Texas stands out for developing its TAKS testing program and addressing the needs of Spanish-speaking students earlier than other states.

But other states lack the systems required by the new law to assess students. "The states are scrambling to develop these assessments," Ms. Pompa added.

Experts said the easiest part is teaching students to speak English. They said young children soak up the language quickly and are motivated to fit into their new peer groups and schools.

The more difficult task is teaching them other academic subjects as they learn English - a job that raises many complex issues.

For instance, Mr. Coleman said, imagine the difficulty of testing a Spanish-speaking student who has learned math in an English-speaking class.

"There is not a one-size-fits-all model," he said, noting that students may need a special test or help from a bilingual teacher.

And those are the kinds of problems facing educators such as Carrollton's Ms. Fair.

The bulk of her 200 students who lack English skills are Spanish speakers, or the ones who attended bilingual classes in the past. But Ms. Fair noticed something interesting about the students who spoke other languages, such as Korean, Vietnamese and Urdu.

They were learning English faster. Those children received 45 minutes of English instruction each day but attended the rest of their classes for math, science and other subjects with English-proficient students.

So this fall, with the exception of kindergarten and first-graders, the Spanish-speaking students will join the others.

"They may be a little uncomfortable at first. They are used to being only with Spanish speakers," Ms. Fair said.

E-mail rdodge@dallasnews.com