Daniel Lozada wants to study computers in college. He has a 3.0 grade point average at Westwood High School in Mesa and has applied to be in an accelerated, academic program next year.
By most accounts, he is an accomplished student for the strides he’s made.
But he’s struggling with the state graduation test.
"I didn’t understand what I was trying to do because of the English," Lozada, an English language learner, said of taking Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standard’s test.
Five years after voters passed a state law requiring schools to teach students only in English, progress among English learners on standardized tests is minimal and the frustrations among teachers and administrators have only grown. Proponents of the legislation say students will succeed in academics after three years of English immersion, while opponents say three years of language immersion are not enough for a student to pass high-stakes tests such as AIMS.
The law gives students one year to become proficient in English before they’re tested and moved to mainstream classrooms. During that year, they’re placed with language specialists who instruct in English, but clarify questions in the child’s native language if necessary. A student can stay in this type of classroom for a year, but then must enter mainstream classrooms. However, they are eligible for two additional years of help if they score below the proficient level on the Stanford English Language Proficiency test.
But Wendy Cohen, principal of Yavapai Elementary School in Scottsdale and English language acquisition specialists, contend it takes four to seven years to become fluent in English. They say the law is not giving English learners a fair chance at passing standardized tests.
It "rushes the children into speaking, reading, and writing in English when they’d develop deeper academic skills if more time was allotted" to learning the language, Cohen said.
And Cohen should know.
One-third of Yavapai’s school population are English learners.
One technique Cohen uses to get these students where they need to be is "looping," in which teachers instruct the same children through sixth grade. Teachers are able to constantly monitor their students and note progress or areas where they need the most help. Kids also feel safer and instruction can begin sooner because they already know the teacher’s classroom expectations.
Debra Duvall, Mesa Unified School District superintendent, said Mesa’s English learners are moving to mainstream classes more rapidly than before the English immersion law passed in 2000. Another change: The state also requires all districts to use the same assessment test, the Stanford English Language Proficiency test. Before the law passed, Mesa used a different assessment test.
"More youngsters are testing out with a greater frequency, but those same youngsters are not performing as well on standardized tests," Duvall said, adding that "more and more of math (on standardized tests) is using problem solving that requires understanding of language and words."
In a study commissioned by Arizona State University and published in September, researchers from the University of Texas, San Antonio took data from the Arizona Department of Education’s Web site and looked at third-grade test scores from 2002 to 2004. Third grade was chosen because it’s the first year a child must take the AIMS test.
The study found Arizona’s English learners lag far behind their English-speaking peers on both the AIMS and Stanford 9 Achievement tests, with English learners’ scores plummeting well below national Stanford 9 averages — especially in 2004, about a year after the state says it first stringently enforced English immersion.
A dramatic improvement was shown, however, on the AIMS writing subtest in 2004, though researchers say writing should be an English learner’s most difficult area to improve — and reported growth numbers by Arizona’s education department seem inconsistent.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne dismisses the study, calling it "a piece of totally unscientific propaganda."
Horne pointed instead to a study his office commissioned and reported in July 2004. He says the study shows that bilingual education programs are not as effective as structured English immersion. His report’s longitudinal study of 70,000 students shows students in bilingual education programs lag far behind those in English immersion programs.
As for Lozada and other English learners in his position, Horne says they’ll get four more chances to pass the AIMS test. Horne’s advice: "Study and learn English — a lot of other kids have done that."