Student Fluency Woes Rising

James Vaznis, Boston Globe, July 8, 2010

The number of Boston school students identified as lacking fluency in English surged dramatically over the past school year, presenting further challenges for a school district already under federal investigation for failing to provide adequate programs for students trying to learn the language.

Such students now number nearly 16,000, about 28 percent of the district’s total enrollment, according to new data released by the district. Last fall, the group consisted of more than 11,000 students.

Much of the increase emerged after school officials complied with a federal directive to retest thousands of students who were improperly evaluated over the last seven years for English fluency, causing them not to be identified for services. Those students were tested only on how well they speak and listen in English, but not their ability to read and write in the language.

The retesting effort, carried out over the past six months, identified 4,269 additional students in need of specialized instruction. The students, who have low MCAS scores, run the gamut: Some barely grasp English, while others are almost fluent.

“It’s a substantial increase, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime situation” said Eileen de los Reyes, Boston’s assistant superintendent for English-language learners. “One thing that is very clear to us is that students in this group need an academic intervention.”

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The rapid increase is adding urgency to the district’s efforts to bring programs that serve English-language learners into compliance with state and federal civil rights laws.

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Boston’s retesting of students is a big step forward in bolstering the quality of education for English-language learners and for accepting the failures of the past, said Miren Uriarte, coauthor of a report that called attention to the problems in Boston schools.

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The growth in the number of English-language learners has challenged school districts statewide. Many programs were thrown into disarray, specialists say, after voters in 2002 abolished widespread use of bilingual education, which allows students to learn subjects in their native tongue until they master English.

The new law stresses teaching all subjects in English for nonnative speakers, using a student’s native language only sparingly. Instruction generally takes place in a separate setting or in a regular classroom amid native English-speaking students.

In making the switch, many districts, such as Boston, failed to provide appropriate staffing, training, and programs, either because of funding shortages or misunderstanding of the legal requirements, specialists say.

Over the last year, Boston has invested millions of dollars to revamp programs, hire dozens of additional teachers to work directly with English-language learners, and train traditional classroom teachers to work with the students. It is planning to spend another $10 million on such efforts this year.

Some advocates for English-language learners question Boston’s ability to properly serve all such students, especially in lean budget times.

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