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New ESL Testing Brings 'Fs' for Some Schools

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New ESL Testing Brings 'Fs' for Some Schools

Harriet Gifford Elementary School in Elgin

This year—for the first time—English language learners took the same Illinois Standards Achievement Test as other students did. Results released today

show many of these students scored poorly on the reading portion of the test. That was enough to get 69 schools state wide labeled as failing. West suburban Elgin took it hard—almost half of the district’s elementary schools didn’t meet the mark. This means that Elgin may need to rethink how it’s educating students who aren’t fluent in English.


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When you think of Harriet Gifford Elementary School, principle Joe Corcoran wants you to think of things like the musical his students are putting on…

MUSICAL: Oh the things you can think, when you think about Seuss! TEACHER: Good!

Corcoran would rather not focus on the failed rating his school got this year.

CORCORAN: I just want to put a little editorial out there for parents that it says we’re a failing school on paper, but are we?

In terms of teaching Spanish-speaking students to read in English, the state says Harriet Gifford Elementary is not getting the job done.

In Elgin, Latinos made up over 40 percent of all students in 2007. And at Harriet Gifford, about a third of all students have limited English Proficiency.

CORCORAN: We just had one group of students, one subgroup, not meet in one subgroup, but every other section, we met.

The subgroup he’s talking about is English Language Learners, or ELLs for short. They hit the mark in math and science, but missed it in reading. Under the federal law No Child Left Behind, if a so-called sub group doesn’t perform well, the whole school fails.

Students in Jessie Ibarra’s fifth and sixth grade bilingual class struggle the most with reading, Ibarra says.

IBARRA: I knew that I didn’t have students here who were reading at a fifth and sixth grade level.

The level of English among her students varies quite a bit. I ask principle Corcoran how bilingual education works here:

CORCORAN: Oh boy, that’s a good question.

He’s being facetious. Schools across the country are searching for the best method for brining ELL students up to speed academically. Some make their students learn only in English. Others ask Spanish speakers to master their own language first.

CHILD: No te-nia-mos ju, juegos...

Elgin transitions students from Spanish to English gradually. Principal Corcoran brings me to a second grade ELL classroom.

CORCORAN: What you see going on in here is a small group guided reading instruction. The instruction is in Spanish. The younger the students are, the more instruction they receive in their native language. Children need to learn to read first in their native language first before they do in English.

The idea is that by mastering your native language, you pick up a second one more effectively and don’t miss out on content in the meantime. By the time students here reach teacher Ibarra’s fifth and six grade class, English plays a larger role.

IBARRA: I use more English, but I give Spanish support.

While accountability is important, Corcoran argues there ought to be other measures, as well.

CORCORAN: The state looks at us as a failing school, and that’s just not fair when you look at all of the other things that we’re doing.

Things like after school programs he says 170 students attend daily. The state board is planning on modifying the ISAT for English Language Learners. By 2010, math and science portions may be offered in Spanish. Corcoran’s students passed math and science—so the new version might not boost reading scores to a passing level. But that’s not his biggest worry. He insists, other issues like education funding and the growth of individual students trump teaching to the ISAT.

Teacher Jessie Ibarra echoes that.

IBARRA: I refuse to teach to a test. I want kids to learn. If a student did not meet standards in reading at that grade level, it’s okay, as long as you see that you’re moving them along, that’s the best accomplishment.

Back at rehearsal, Ibarra directs students. As she looks around the room, she sees faces of students who were once in Spanish-speaking classrooms. Now they’ve moved to learning entirely in English. The question, is whether the school is moving them fast enough.

For Chicago Public Radio, I’m Eilee Heikenen-Weiss.

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