Learning with English as a second language

MSPAP: Dipping test scores signal that schools aren't prepared for advancing immigration.

February 12, 2002

NO CHILD LEFT behind. It's an indisputable ideal, the easy-to-like slogan of new federal education guidelines that are forcing Maryland to rewrite its standards and testing programs.

For Maryland, those four words must become more than a mantra. Not enough is being done now to ensure that school systems challenge and serve their increasingly diverse and limited-English populations.

If the state needed a wake-up call, the droopy MSPAP scores released last month provided it.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said "wild swings" in some school systems' test scores can be blamed, in part, on the skyrocketing enrollment of children who speak little English.

No child left behind?

These test scores are best interpreted as symptoms of a larger disease, of Maryland's lack of readiness for a long-predicted demographic shift that isn't just coming -- it's here.

There are about 26,000 limited-English speakers in Maryland schools, up from about 14,000 in 1995. Montgomery County has the lion's share -- more than 10,000 children, followed by Prince George's, Baltimore and Howard counties. Many smaller jurisdictions, such as Harford, have seen the number of students whose first language isn't English double since 1995.

The suburban schools' new families hail from El Salvador, Vietnam, India, China, Iran, the Philippines, South Korea, Ethiopia and other countries.

It has been said that Prince George's County students represent more than 130 countries and 100 languages. Howard County schools' enrollment is now 10 percent Asian.

During Maryland school reform's early years, children who didn't speak English were exempted from the MSPAP.

Prodded by federal-funding program requirements, the state rules changed last year to make tests more inclusive. Students who have been in English-speaking schools for two or more years must now take the MSPAP. Other students must take the MSPAP if they can pass a minimum proficiency English test.

These rules reduced the number of exemptions based on language, but there's more to be done. Even after the state's rule change, more fifth- and eighth-grade limited-English students were exempted than tested last year, state records show.

In third grade, for example, nearly half the limited-English speakers were allowed to skip the reading test; of those who took it, only about one in five earned a satisfactory score.

In fifth grade, 52 percent were exempt, and fewer than 30 percent of the test takers earned satisfactory scores.

Eighth grade was the worst: Nearly 60 percent didn't take the test, and only 14 percent of test takers earned satisfactory scores.

Of course, the dismal performances by those who took the test helped "swing" some school test scores lower. The lesson is simple: Being included isn't the same as being ready. New English speakers are especially prone to difficulty on the MSPAP, an essay-type test that requires a high level of language mastery.

But the issue here isn't really the scores. If these students must meet the same rigorous standards as their English-speaking peers, the critical question is, how can Maryland schools do a better job of teaching them?

Local school officials say many non-English speakers arrive at school poorly prepared to learn in any language. Last year, teachers rated only 28 percent of limited-English kindergartners as fully ready to start school, compared with 41 percent of their English-speaking classmates.

The state school board says there's a shortage of teachers certified in English as a second language. Maryland must do more to build the teaching pool needed to meet the needs of its increasingly diverse schools.

Not to be discounted is the culture shock faced by mainstream classroom teachers who have had little or no training for teaching students with new English skills. More professional development will be needed.

The new demographics of Maryland schools must spur a comprehensive effort, influencing the content and form of MSPAP's coming overhaul as well as the pledged development of statewide curricula.

Montgomery County isn't being a crybaby when it claims it struggles to meet the needs of its non-English speakers. One can quibble over whether it's a financial hardship but agree that it will be hard -- and will require additional investment.

Schools are where children are integrated into society, where future citizens and leaders incubate. That should be reason enough to ensure for the next decade of school reform that Maryland's blossoming cultural richness isn't squandered.

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