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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2006 | Latinos are now the largest subgroup in San Diego County’s public elementary and secondary schools. With this reality has come a belated concentration on meeting the needs of Latino students, with precious little data offering proven strategies for success.

Latino students are not necessarily the same as English Language Learner students, but there is great overlap. While many Latinos are fluent in English and some ELL students’ primary language is other than Spanish, Spanish-speaking ELL students last year made up nearly 87 percent of all ELL students county-wide, according to the San Diego County Office of Education.

SDCOE data shows there were 101,000 ELL students in the county’s public schools in 2005 who spoke Spanish as their primary language. That’s one out of every five students and is nearly twice the number from 1995. That growth rate is expected to continue.

Yet county educators have focused almost exclusively on Latino and African-American subgroups, rather than on ELL students as a unique, separate category.

Success is primarily being measured over time by examining the percentage of students in each prominent subgroup who are passing the California High School Exit Exam, or CAHSEE.

The CAHSEE, along with the results of other standardized tests, has revealed what’s known as an achievement gap, which refers to the disparity in academic success between whites and Asians on the one hand, and Latinos and African-Americans on the other hand.

The Latino and African-American subgroups have historically under-performed academically.

Closing this gap is the admirable mission of SDCOE’s Achievement Gap Task Force, which was formed in 2003 and has focused on improving CAHSEE pass rates.

The CAHSEE has two parts – mathematics and English/language arts. Beginning with the class of 2006, high school seniors are now required to pass both portions to receive their diplomas. It is because of this severe, tangible penalty for failure that the CAHSEE is considered a high-stakes exam.

Students first take the CAHSEE in 10th grade and have multiple chances to re-take the test for the next three years if they don’t pass. The CAHSEE follows state standards and tests students at the most basic levels for English and math. The state requires that students correctly answer only 55 percent of the math portion and about 60 percent of the English/language arts portion.

The task force is concentrating on the math portion so far because “math truly is the gatekeeper for higher learning,” said Escondido Union High School principal Susan Emerson, at SDCOE’s Achievement Gap Task Force news conference last month.

The task force, which has enlisted the support of every superintendent in the county, has seen terrific success with its efforts over the past four years. This year, pass rates for CAHSEE’s math tests were 98.5 percent for whites and Asians and 92.3 percent for Latinos and African-Americans – making the gap only 6.2 percent.

The gap was 37 percent in 2003, 25 percent in 2004, and 14 percent in 2005. Clearly, the trend is positive.

The mission, said task force chair and Poway Unified School District superintendent Don Phillips, is to achieve a 100-percent pass rate on the math portion of the CAHSEE by elevating the performance of all students and by accelerating the performance of subgroups.

Beginning this year, Phillips said the task force will address the achievement gap and pass rates for the English/language arts portion of the exam.

Although the task force has increased CAHSEE math pass rates for Latinos and African-Americans, one group of students – the English Language Learners – still struggles.

The Failure to Address ELL Needs

ELL students are not addressed specifically as a subgroup by the Achievement Gap Task Force, although it is widely recognized that the testing challenges faced by Spanish-speaking students stem predominantly from a language barrier.

According to SDCOE’s report, 78 percent of the county’s ELL students in the class of 2006 passed the math portion of the CAHSEE, while pass rates were 92 percent for Latinos and 93 percent for African-Americans.

San Diego Unified School District, the largest in the county, had 6,902 seniors last spring, and only 216 – or about 3 percent – failed the CAHSEE math test.

Ninety-four percent of SDUSD’s Latinos and 93 percent of African-Americans passed the test – an outstanding achievement. But only 80 percent of the district’s ELL students passed.

Other districts show similar statistics (see table).

Bob Watkins, one of five members of the San Diego County Board of Education, believes not enough is being done for Spanish-speaking students. “This is a segment of the population that needs our support and attention,” he said.

Watkins and many others say there should be more intense focus on reading and language arts development for ELL students – as reading, rather than math, is the cornerstone of future academic success.

“English is the foundation,” Watkins said. “You can’t do math or any other subject without knowing English.”

Teaching English to Spanish-speaking students is an issue that has divided California educators for decades. Arguments over textbooks and curriculum, bilingual instruction versus immersion, the passage of Proposition 227 in 1998, and debilitating political battles have reached all the way to California’s state Board of Education, the legislature and the governor’s office – paralyzing progress and hindering the search for answers.

Some local programs do exist. SDCOE offers an English Language Services Unit with bilingual staff to help teachers, parents and administrators support ELL needs. A Parent/Family Involvement Unit works to increase parents’ involvement in their children’s education.

SDCOE also offers migrant education, parent training, college guidance for Latinos and various writing and reading programs.

There are 1,350 teachers enrolled in English Learner certification programs, and over 700 teachers have completed EL programs – although only 14.4 percent of the county’s teachers are Latino, according to 2005 figures.

Hiring more teachers who are Latino, male and fluent in academic Spanish should be a priority, Watkins said.

He objects to throwing more money at Latinos and low-income subgroups without a coordinated, overall plan in place. Complaining that four people at the county were hired for $390,000 to study the problem, he said, “We’re getting nothing from the county on what works and what doesn’t work.”

Watkins acknowledges pockets of success, but he wants no more “open-ended programs,” as he calls them. Rather, he said educators first need to determine what results are expected and by when, before implementing more programs and services.

Intense English language instruction for parents is essential, said Watkins, pointing to Escondido where he says ELL scores are improving because there is “a phenomenal ELL program for parents that’s very popular.”

Watkins believes it is critical for Latino children to be exposed to English-language reinforcement in the home. “If the parents are illiterate, then there is no English spoken at home and no continuity,” he said. “If parents can’t speak English, they don’t know how to help their kids. They don’t see why school or learning English is important. They are afraid to speak to teachers or ask questions. And they don’t know how to go find the answers.”

The problems faced by ELL students go beyond learning English in the classroom and whether or not the best way to teach is through bilingual instruction or immersion, this textbook or that one.

Success in high school and adulthood for these children may be inextricably linked to cultural differences. As important as high-quality English instruction is, equally valuable are programs and services that teach families to break free from customs and traditions that preclude academic advancement, to maneuver through the complicated high school and college process, to know one’s rights, to provide incentives and proper motivation, to feel comfortable approaching teachers and administrators, to challenge conventional attitudes from both students and adults about expectations, and to create a home life that supports student achievement.

While the county’s 42 superintendents should be commended for focusing on struggling Latino and African-American students who need help passing the CAHSEE, more attention to ELL students will be required if educators are serious about ensuring that every high school senior receives that diploma.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. Contact her at marsha.sutton@voiceofsandiego.org. Or, send a letter to the editor.

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