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Educational Testing (K-12) 7 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences, Teaching.

To be clear up front: the punitive and ridiculous Federal "no child left behind" program is detrimental to American education, to students of diverse backgrounds and beleaguered school disctricts who struggle just maintain minimum services. I am not speaking in this post of the fucked up idea that funding for education should be linked to poorly conceived and designed standardized tests, which is having the effect of worsening our public education system. This is not the kind of testing I'm talking about here. I also need to admit that in what follows I ignore the tight budgetary constraints in California, which have eliminated music, vocational ed, and arts in many public schools around the state; and which keep many talented individuals from entering the education profession.

It's time to change the way America educates. Like many things, the issue of standardized testing in schools evokes contradictory emotions and values for me, but after living with California education for the past 6 years, I'm at a loss as to what can be done. One thing that seems clear to me is that the education students are receiving leaves them largely bereft of basic intellectual skills and basic knowledge, let alone higher abilities.

In California, we are left with some disturbing questions: Why do students have (supposedly) more homework than ever before, but end up graduating without basic reading skills? or knowledge of geography? or ability to do simple algebra? (etc.) Why do one half of all the freshman admitted to the CSU, supposedly from the top 1/3 of every year's high school graduating class, have to take remedial English and math?

This spring, hundreds of graduating seniors failed the California high school exit exam—enacted in 1999—and several are now suing the state to receive their diplomas anyway, demanding alternatives to the test be given to demonstrate academic competencies in English and Math. The exam can be taken multiple times, starting Sophomore year, and students have only to pass it once. I can't help but find myself unsympathetic to their law suit. There are only so many excuses that can be made for being a high school senior and not having the basic skills to pass an exam on English and Math, which is basically at an 8th grade level.

As a college professor teaching young people educated in both public and private schools in California, I have found a core set of "Faulty Educational Values" driving K-12 education in the state (and perhaps around the country), which I find reflected in my students' attitudes and performance at the college level. (To be fair, I also find some of these problematic values in higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences.)

Value 1. So-called "critical thinking" without requiring students to learn anything to think about—facts, ideas, data, history, biology, chemistry, geology, sociology, literature, etc.
Value 2. Self-esteem at the expense of having adequate expectations and accountability for the students, and rewarding failure by facilitating students' move through the grades, regardless of their skills or abilities.
Value 3. Business skills for the job market (e.g., using Microsoft Office Suite) over substantive content, valuing delivery method over meaningful thought.
Value 4. College education is normative, without providing K-12 education that actually prepares students for college.
Value 5. College education is normative at the expense of perfectly legitimate trades and skills, eliminating funding for trades and skills both in the secondary and post-secondary levels.

Values must be judged by their consequences or effects, and clearly, the "touchy-feely" values that have driven education since the Baby Boomers became teachers and parents have not worked. Students are less well-educated, less proficient in basic English and Math, less knowledgeable of the world around them than they were 35 years ago (see the School & College report mentioned below). This failure of values requires a rethinking of both values and means to our educational ends as a nation, a society, and a democracy.

The tension between the college level and the secondary level is increasing around the country. In Nevada, for example, the state legislature just cut off funding for remedial education at the University of Nevada, arguing that students who need remedial educaction should not be at UNR to begin with and that high schools need to be producing college level graduates. The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published the results of a study about high school graduates' preparation for college and the gulf between university professors' and high school teachers' perceptions called School & College. For example, roughly 80% of college professors say their students are not prepared for college, whereas 80% of high school teachers say their students are prepared.

One way to deal with these issues is to set standards for knowledge and skills at specific grade levels, which must be demonstrated in tests before advancement to the next level. To be most effective, I would suggest grouping grades together, so that there would be a test maybe every three years, grouping students within 3-5 years in age of each other together, rather than in yearly grades. This would require us to give up the idea of automatic yearly progress through grades, and would require the disarticulation of "grades" from skill level. This is roughly the French system, which every four years requires students to demonstrate their readiness to advance. However, I do have some serious reservations about this kind of testing, but I think that many of them could be addressed, and we could have a more fair American system that would still put expectations and accountability in place. Here are my reservations:

1. In European systems, at age 14, students are tracked in either a "university" or a "trade" high school. Rather than tracking for university or trade that early, I would suggest that the testing be used as a tool to gage students' progress and skills and knowledge and to get them the effective help they need, maintaining as much flexibility and openness as possible for students to choose their own paths' goals. I do believe that a functioning democracy should maximize the availability and quality of education for all its citizens; but I also have to believe that that democratic goal can be met without a universal dumbing down of our population or lowering of standards and expectations.

2. The content of these tests can be very problematic, especially in multicultural America. And yet, even in History, there are key issues and events that I would argue must be discussed and learned about and debated by young people to bring them into the sphere of democracy and train them for public participation. In many states, there are already curriculum committees in place which lay out general curriculum guidelines, which are provisional and change regularly, in everything from math to history, from biology to English. These tests could be linked to those curriculum changes and developments, and designed in a similar fashion by a committee of experts that debates the content. This would allow for the contingency of knowledge to be acknowledged and for value debates to occur in the designing of the test to ensure they are flexible enough to change over time and follow the developments of the students' education.

3. I fear that these kinds of tests could lead to an opposite effect of the current values. Whereas teaching students supposed "critical thinking" without teaching them any facts or data to think about is problematic, it is equal problematic to establish a kind of education that would devolve into rote memorization without thinking and evaluation in order to pass the tests. One of the possible strengths of the American education system is that it has the potential to encourage creative and innovate thinkers. I don't have any good ideas about how to do this, but the testing needs to be implemented in such a way that students would still be learning critical and evaluative and creative thinking skills and have the basic knowledge and skills to pass the gateway tests.

Despite these reservations, from the vantage of a college professor, I am at present firmly in favor of high school graduation examinations and perhaps even college admissions exams (more along the lines of the ACT, rather than the SAT). And I've even been reading lately about some majors that require exit exams for Bachelor's Degrees. I'm open to suggestions and arguments contrary to what I've laid out (sparsely) here.



1. Phoebe - 10 May 2006

I agree with everything you’ve said here, and am impressed with your suggestions for change. I have always found it easy to criticize this “no child left behind” fiasco, but couldn’t think of what to do about it. There isn’t one parent I know here who is thrilled with the “teach to the test” manner of teaching that our kids’ educators are forced in to. This method makes learning a huge drudging pain in the neck instead of something that seems actually meaningful to life. If I had the gumption, I’d start a grass-roots movement against it, but I don’t. I’m swamped with my own educational worries.

I found an interesting article in the Yahoo news source about dropping SAT scores, and what might have factored into this recent phenomenon:

y Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAYWed May 10, 7:00 AM ET

Some colleges are reporting double-digit drops in the average SAT scores of applicants this year, even as other credentials, such as class rank and college-prep coursework, remained similar to or grew stronger than last year’s.

Among schools reporting large drops: The nine-campus University of California system, which saw a 15-point drop on average among applicants, Average composite scores for the ACT, a rival college entrance exam, were unchanged from last year.

It’s not yet clear what the drops mean, but colleges are particularly curious because the scores are almost completely based on the new SAT, introduced last year by the non-profit College Board, which owns the test.

2. J. Todd Ormsbee - 10 May 2006

It’s a complicated issue for me. On one hand, I find that much of the way we do testing is punitive and ineffective. But as a teacher who is tired of getting students who can’t read, write a sentence, use a library; who don’t know the basics of the scientific method, any major figures in American history, who can’t locate alabama on a map, let alone Uzbekistan; who look at me like I’m on crack when I expect them to read a book and understand what it said…

I just feel strongly that students must be held accountable for the information that they learning and they must demonstrate their ability to use knowledge they gain. Teaching students to think is great, but I don’t believe you’ve actually taught them to think about anything if they have nothing to think about.

I’m in favor of testing that holds students accountable for their learning and education. I say that with full knowledge of the complications of testing. I think that we are reaping the rewards of faulty educational theory of the 1980s now, which is that our children are no longer educated at all.

The court ruling in CA that students should be allowed to graduate even if they don’t pass an 8th grade level English and Math test is fucking ridiculous.

3. belaja - 12 May 2006

Well, having just come out of four days of meetings at work on the California educational market (our company is trying to break into it)I find this very interesting. First of all, California is just absolutely bat-shit insane in the way it deals with K-12 education. Not that the rest of the country isn’t a little loony and getting loonier, but California is the top crazy in the nut house.

The system is totally at the mercy of people with political power and agendas which often have nothing to do with good educational practices or with the realities of what the educational system has to deal with. The Whole Language vs. Phonics debate is one case in point. A couple ignorant people with an agenda were able to completely turn reading instruction in the state of California into a circus and in the process dictate their own preferences on the entire system (they were NOT educators nor had they ever done anything in education, by the way). The whole prop 227, Ron Unz thing about bilingual education is another case in point. The research is absolutely clear and unequivocal that bilingual education is the best approach to teaching English Language Learners. It is clear and unequivocal and this has been known since the late 1980s with the issuance of the Ramirez Report. That report was done because of the English First movement and both they and the advocates of bilingual education were allowed to approve the research structure and protocols. The English First people crowed about how this was going to prove that English immersion (time-on-task essentially) was the best approach. When the report came out and bilingual approaches were clearly found to be superior to English immersion or rapid-exit bilingual or rapid-exit (3 years or less) ESL, they conveniently forgot to mention the results of their formerly beloved research project and went right on with their basicall racist, anti-immigrant campaigns. In California right now, it is THE LAW that children will learn English in one year and will thenceforth function in a classroom in the same way as a native speaker. Unfortunately, people forgot to tell kids they had to do that.

The system in California is completely and utterly bolloxed and frankly it was bolloxed by people who know absolutely fuck-all about education. I wouldn’t teach K-12 there on a bet. As for the rest of the country, I was actively teaching at a time when the country as a whole was POLITICALLY moving to high-stakes, standardized testing every year and lower and lower grade levels as a way to make teachers “accountable.” Doy. If we’re looking for accountability then we’d better start looking at parents because if they come to school unprepared by a year or two, then the teacher has to play catch-up for that year or two. And kids are coming to school less and less prepared all the time. Who knows what to blame that on. How it manifests is not necessarily that the whole cohort is low, but that there is a high group and then a VERY low group (not in terms of intelligence but in terms of readiness skills and preparation) and the middle group is almost non-existent any more. Try teaching to that group on any given day. (Blast this tiny little blogger box. I can’t track my thoughts in it.)

The other issue I have is that teachers very often know exactly what works and how to help kids be successful, but they are absolutely the least powerful players in terms of curriculum. (In California for example the curriculum is mandated in key areas by the board of education. Who are they? Corporate CEOs mostly who got where they are because of political connections and campaign contributions.) The other villain in many states is legistlatures (and let’s not EVEN talk about he current administration’s insane forays into education policy). Education is an easy political football. Most of these guys are businessmen. I’m sorry ladies and gentlemen, but business is a good paradigm for business. It’s not a good paradigm for, oh, religion, let’s say, or education. They are very often acting out of political ideology (think Christian right) or just pandering for votes. You know–“is our children learning?” (apparently not grammar, apparently not at Yale!) I’ve been doing an extensive review of Texas state standards lately for example. I cannot believe how dumb they are. I kept thinking, I can’t believe that any educator worth his or her salt could write something this dumb. Are they just ALL as dumb as W? Then I happened to notice that these are educational guidelines produced by the education department. They are the actual legislative codes. Guess who wrote ’em? Yeah.

In the state where I taught (which is actually one of the most sane), you now have required standardized, high-stakes testing almost every year starting in second grade. Teachers HAVE to teach to those tests. That means in-depth exploration, developing higher level skills (in any area, not just critical thinking–and I disagree with you there btw), having time to do lots of extra practice, having time to modify for kids who are struggling (not everybody gets things in exactly the same way or on the same timetable)–all of that is right out. Any kind of developmentally appropriate practices goes right out the window because when kids learn things and their proficiency levels in those areas are determined basically arbitrarily, by fiat, in a legislature or bureaucratically. And it may or may not have anything to do with reality.

The upshot of all this is that not only teachers but students are constantly being whipsawed all the hell over the place and their educations are completely incoherent as a result.

What was I saying? What was the question? Damn this little blogger box! Sorry if this is incoherent. It’s because of my education. For that, I blame America. First.

4. belaja - 12 May 2006

Sorry, correction about Texas standards. A sentence should read “these are NOT educational guidelines produced by the education department.”

5. J. Todd Ormsbee - 12 May 2006

Hooray for belaja! Thanks for bringing all this to the table, and for giving me lots to think about this issue. Some days, I’m so frustrated with my students (whom I love as people, by the way), and by the attitudes of the CSU regarding my students inability to do college-level work, that I can’t think clearly about the issue.

The only thing I would add, or ask you about, is student accountability. I hate that testing is a political instrument to punish teachers (the most hardworking, undercompensated, social vital segment of the American work force); but I also think that testing is a vital classroom tool for evaluating student progress and to make students accountable for their own education and progress.

At the individual course level, I carefully design exams that hold students responsible for the substantive content of the course and require them to demonstrate their ability to apply knowledge and skills to that material. Of course things get tricky for standardization.

I also have to agree with my friend Dathon, a science teacher in Ohio, that the absense of National standards is also hampering. Local control is something we seem to value in America, but it may be an outmoded value in a global economy and in a nation where people move around so much. And frankly, standards for graduation from high school should NOT be at what was considered an 8th grade level in 1970. It is so ludicrous it makes me want to bang my head against the wall.

But I suppose the only way to do good, useful educational testing is to get it out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of educators.

6. belaja - 12 May 2006

Well, now that I’ve ranted I guess I should now recant myself and add that I am not as familiar with issues specific to secondary ed. as I am with primary ed. I think there’s a difference between testing as a vital tool in the classroom–it’s very important I agree. And there can be the occasional high-stakes test at reasonable intervals to hold both students and teachers to account to the community (who is, after all, paying and who also have a societal stake in the education of youth). The problem is, as you say, testing becomes a political instrument against teachers and even in some ways against students who need extra help. I see this in the trend in some areas (hi, Californians) to hold bilingual kids to the same standards of performance as native speakers without taking into any account the fact that the language is a huge barrier to performance for which these kids need special support. They can end up at the end of their tenure in K-12 at a comparable level with native speakers but they need special support. Meantime if they know the science, math, or social studies in their own language–well, they know it don’t they. But the current cry in California circles is that “if they don’t know it in English, they don’t know it.” Meantime, they’ve taken away the support they need to actually know it well in English. And it’s also a way of punishing kids who need extra support because they come to school unprepared because of poverty, low education level of parents (highest predictor of preparation for and success in school). I don’t believe testing should be done away with at all. But what we’re currently doing with it is criminal. Teachers aren’t testing kids on what they’ve been taught. They’re teaching kids what they’ll be tested on. It’s a huge difference and it distorts the educational experience.

So I do think testing, if done right and judiciously can be an important means of holding students accountable. And also, I agree about automatic passing of kids from one grade level to the next. The issue with accountability though becomes distorted in another way because of the way testing is currently used politically. For example, in Washington state, high-stakes state standards testing is done at 4th, 7th, and 10th grades. The 10th grade test impacts whether or not you will eventually graduate. At second grade, a high-stakes reading test is given. In third, fifth, eighth, commerically produced standardized tests like the ITBS are given. In the sixth, ninth and eleventh grades very difficult (again high-stakes–for kids anyway) writing tests are given at the district level. That is results are used in the district only, but have an important impact on students. I gave the test to fourth graders and those poor little buggers tried so hard, were under so much pressure, just basically freaked out over it. But by the time they got up into 10th and 11th grades they were angry. There was quite a bit of test rebellion in our district and from what I’ve read this is a problem across the country. Kids skipping school on the days of the tests–and the make-up days. Filling in wrong answers on purpose, writing dumbass answers to essay questions or writing off-prompt. Just sitting there through the test and not even doing most of the items. I used to be a scorer for our districts writing tests during the summer. We’d do it in a group with a rubric. I remember one 11th grader who wrote a brilliant and blistering essay about how sick he was of being tested every time he turned around and being told his whole future hinged on THAT ONE TEST. How stupid it was and exactly why it was stupid and what he felt it said to him about how he was viewed as a person in society and how boxed in he felt by all the testing. It was not just some whiny adolescent rant. On a break we (all teachers in the district) read the essay out loud to each other. The kid was spot on and we all agreed with him. Unfortunately, since he wrote completely off the prompt we gave him a very low score on the test. And yes, we were TOTALLY aware of the irony.

As far as standards go, I think you make a good point about some kind of national standard, especially in content areas like math and science. Currently, I think state standards (and I’ve been looking at plenty in some detail in the last few weeks) are fragmented, very often politically driven, sometimes so vague as to be meaningless (California listening standard for ELL students: listens attentively. Insert eye-roll emoticon here) often have little to do with reality or what’s useful for students and are sometimes just plain dumb(Hello, TEXAS!)

I think local control is not going to go away as an ideal and it has some strong benefits, but I also think it does mitigate against putting realistic effective standards into place. But even if we had coherent, consistent standards, if students’ educations are incoherent and inconsistent because they are whipped around by every political wind, then it really would make little difference.

Also, I have to ask you about the lawsuit you mentioned. There’s one I know about that is up for a verdict here soon, if it hasn’t gotten one already that had to do with ELL students. Basically they’re being held to account for native-speaker standards for graduation but have not been given the education necessary to meet that standard. ELLs can come very close to native-speaker performance levels in content material if they have the right support. And the right support has been removed by voter fiat and instead we have the new Learn-English-in-One-Year-Or-Else method of teaching ESL. Meantime, kids who come in late in their secondary career and know the material in, say, math and science in their own languages can’t pass the test even though they know the stuff because it is officially declared that “if you don’t know it in English, you don’t know it.” Is this the lawsuit you’re referring to? Or one like it?

Here is the link, in case you’re interested. If you can’t get it to work, PM or email me and I’ll send you the text.


7. J. Todd Ormsbee - 14 May 2006

Again, many thanks.

The most compelling thing you bring up here, for me, is that we expect English learners to be able to pass a 10th Grade level test (I found out over the weekend that the math test is 8th, and the English test is 10th) without giving them the classes and support they need to bring their language skills up to 10th grade level.

There are some complications, however. Although only 3% of European-American students fail the high school exam, once they get to college, it’s less likely to matter. When the CSU did a study of why 1/2 of all freshmen have to take remedial English, they found that native speakers were as likely as immigrants to need remedial work. So that means the answers may not be that obvious and that the education deficiencies are broader than English learners.

There is another problem in California, in dealing with English learners, and it’s a sociological rather than educational one. Numerous studies have shown what should be obvious: in areas where immigrants are concentrated, their skill in English remains well below minimum proficiency well into the 2nd and 3rd generations. Because 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live here, it means that the concentration of non-English speakers is high and that their children struggle to master English. This means, in a nutshell, that for many English learners, they only speak English in the classroom with their teachers, but the entire rest of their lives is spent speaking the immigrant language (work, home, friends, family, church). Under those circumstances, it is no wonder that 2nd and 3rd generation Americans still can’t speak English.

Simple bilingual education doesn’t seem to be the answer either, at least not in the way it was implemented in California in the 1980s. It never required immersion in either language, and students came out at the end having mastered neither.

The ideal solution would be to adequately fund ESL programs in K-12 schools in California. Given that 1/2 of all immigrants to the United States live in California, I can’t see how this isn’t already done…but you are right in pointing out that we expect English competency without giving English support.

My only suggestion for this would be to start having K-12 education offered in other languages, and teach English as a second language for those students. Although this would then give adequate education to those whose first language is not English, it would also leave many problems:

1) it wouldn’t help immigrants integrate economically, socially or politically in the long run, leaving them outside the life of the nation; as much as we left-wingers like to insist that there is no national language, it is foolish to think that a nation can function which can’t communicate with itself. The practical, day-to-day functionings of a democracy require a population that can argue and dialogue effectively. Other democracies have been able to manage limited numbers of languages (switzerland and canada come to mind), but they have geographical regions set up for a particular language’s dominance, they have limited languages, mechanisms set up to account for the official languages, and they still insist that immigrants learn the official language of the canton or province where they live.

2) it would also mean setting up parallel university systems in the other languages, an incredibly complicated process; otherwise, the non-English speakers would not have access to a high school education.

3) Since the U.S. has immigrants from literally everywhere in the world, the debate about which languages we will officially maintain among immigrant population would be horrific. Even if you say Spanish, because it’s the most numerous, you are then left with the issues of discrimination against the 100s of minority languages spoken among immigrants right now.

The simplest of solutions would be to eliminate the high school graduation test, but to insist that all immigrant college graduates have to take the English proficiency examination that international and exchange students have to take. But this again would simply punish students for going to schools that did not have adequate English instruction for them in the first place.

8. Anonymous - 14 May 2006

I have been following the exit exam fiasco in California (I live in Nevada) and I have little or no sympathy for students who cannot pass the exit exam with a passing score of 55% on the math portion or 60% on the english portion.

Lets get a grip on reality here…if 50% of the students admitted to the cal-state system need remedial coursework (one or more classes), why is the cal-state system admitting them in the first place?

I graduated in 1981, and I took 4 units of english, 5 of math, 6 of science, and 3 of history (my GPA was 2.04, btw). The subject of english was my most difficult, and I still struggle with it from time to time.

I suppose it is the way students are just tuned out to the concept of learning these days (when a recent news article showed that 1/3 of 16-24 year olds could NOT find Louisiana on a map of the United States, I almost died laughing my ass off), this is a subject I learned in elementary school (geography).

You want to improve the concept of learning english for immigrants, eliminate bi-lingual education, and switch to total english immersion. You want to improve math concepts, switch to endless drills using paper and pencil of add, subtract, multiply, divide, fractions, and percentages (it is amazing the number of high school graduates who cannot add 3/4 + 7/8 and get the correct answer of = 1 5/8).

Get rid of social promotion and grade inflation (those things simply set kids up for failure), group students by ability, not age, and increase the school day and school year…

Hopefully, we can reserve this trend…

9. belaja - 16 May 2006

Total English immersion has PROVEN through extensive tracking and research to be much less effective than ANY form of bilingual education–transitional early exit, late exit, one-way bilingual education, dual language (two-way) bilingual education. The research results in many studies (including, as I mentioned, in those commissioned and designed by English-only types) consistently shows this to be the case. I have seen numerous studies done at different times and places and in different political environments. English immersion does not do what you think it does. It just ends up producing sort of half-castes who are neither good English speakers nor competent speakers of their own languages. In addition, they delay learning content material (math, science, social studies, language arts) as well as literacy skills (in most cases) while they are taking the 3 years MINIMUM that it takes to develop their English to a point where they are able do academic work at a level approximating that of a native speaker. Speaking a language is not a question of simply learning a collection of “facts” (vocabulary, structure, etc.) It is a skill that must be learned. It requires restructuring in the brain itself. It is not “learned” it is “acquired.” It’s developmental, which means you can facilitate it, but not force it. Second language learning scaffolds onto the first language. If you cut off the development of the first language, the second language acquisition is compromised. Further, if a non-English speaker has the functional language-level of a two year old, do you expect them to do first or second or twelfth grade work in math, science or reading? Would you expect an English-speaking two-year old to do English work? If you just throw them into a sink-or-swim style English immersion program (which presumes no outside ESL support either)–and which is ILLEGAL in this country, by the way–you are going to get very different results than what you seem to think that will produce. Even if you give them ESL up-front, you delay their development in other areas by stopping everything to get English going. If you’ve kept them in an ESL class for the year or two it takes to get them up to speed in English, how can you expect them to be at grade level and ready to graduate. Why would you be surprised that they are two or more years behind their peers?

The other point to be made here about bilingual education (speaking to your point earlier, Todd) is that California would often stick students in a room with an untrained aide whose only qualification was that they spoke some Spanish. Then they called that their bilingual education program. It’s a complete farce and a practice that deserved to be stamped out (whether it actually has or not is another question). On the other hand, some districts in California have had great success with bilingual education when it’s done correctly. The Calexico school district is the poorest in the state and they have a 2.8% high school dropout rate. They got into a bilingual model in the late 60s by feeling their way into WHAT WORKED. They were able to do it without a lot of outside, politically motivated interference (sadly enough, because they were poor and mostly Hispanic and so nobody much cared what they did). See here for a brief summary:


Speaking from experience, though, on the issue of funding, I can tell you that adequate funding for ESL programs at the K-12 level is just not done. They are funded, yes, and people make do as best they can, but they are most definitely NOT funded adequately. It’s one of the reasons why you have kids being taught by unqualified aides. Depending on the numbers, you may or may not have enough money to actually hire a qualified teacher. Or if you do have enough, there may not be enough teachers to go around. Materials are an issue as well. Districts who’ve made a success of it have been able to do so because they have a large enough population in their schools that they can use basic ed. monies from the state or other sources that they get for all pupils, to pick up some of the slack.

The issue of multiple languages is definitely a problem. However, I don’t think you can call it discriminatory out of hand to give the best program you can to Spanish-speaking learners (who are 80% of ESL students nationwide) and then also give the best possible program you can to students of minority languages. The long-term research shows that the best plan there would be long-term ESL support and sheltered instruction in content areas to make sure that they are understanding the material. One interesting point about your suggestion to have K-12 in other languages with ESL support is that this was actually done in the past in this country. During the years when there was a lot of immigration from Poland and Germany and other areas of Central Europe, there were schools–public schools–in the midwest particularly that were K-12 Polish-language schools with (what we now call) ESL as part of the curriculum. There were also German schools of the same design. They worked very well, were completely non-controversial and lasted until the waves of immigration from those areas petered out and there weren’t so many kids whose home language was other than English.

What we should be interested in is what kids look like on the end of the continuum (ie, high school graduation)–not how fast they get into English, but how fully they acquire it. If that’s what we’re REALLY interested in, then it’s very clear that these approaches are what work best. What we’re doing in almost the whole country (not to keep beating up on California) is just slapdash, inconsistent, whipsawed with every political wind–and we end up with kids who have a slapdash, inconsistent education in all areas–not just the acquisition of English. And as far as that goes–English immersion doesn’t really do all that great a job of helping kids acquire English on anything more than a superficial level–and that’s clearly demonstrated in the research too. I will give you this though. English immersion will teach them how to say “you want fries with that?” If that’s what we’re satisfied with for those kids, then let’s go wild and immerse them head to toe.

Anyhow, anonymous, the “solutions” you are advocating are extremely limited, linear, and don’t take into account all kinds of variables, nor how kids actually learn. It’s interesting to me how people seem to have very rigidly and even aggressively-held opinions on what works educationally in math, science, English, whatever, based entirely on their own experience as a child in school. Not only is that not exactly a respresentative sampling that is statistically significant, but it is based on pretty much zero deep knowledge–those opinions are derived almost entirely from an uninformed, unconscious experience of an inexperienced, uneducated person (a child). Really. Do you have evidence that the solutions you are touting really actually work? Because in several cases, I can cite material that shows that they don’t. Most especially in the area of English language learning, NONE of the research (done on actual, functioning programs) backs up what you’re saying. It is amazingly consistent across time and geographical area.

10. belaja - 16 May 2006

Oh, dear. Look at the size of that thing. I promise not to post on this topic again, no matter WHAT anybody says.

11. J. Todd Ormsbee - 16 May 2006

Don’t apologize for your posts. I meant this blog to be a place where we could have substantive and meaty discussions.

I agree that immersion is least effective, but I thought the research was a bit more dodgy. For example, I thought immersion was most effective before age 10 but its effectiveness declines with age of the child. I also thought that immersion worked better in CA because, as you point out, we had such a fucked up implementation of bilingual education.

Thanks a million for the info about Calexico Shool District. I’ve passed it along to my students in my course on inequality.


12. belaja - 16 May 2006

Well, what the research actually shows is that for the first three years ANYTHING you do with them is going to have the same learning curve. To me this shows that the process is essentially developmental. Learners establish a competency in what is called BICS (basic interpersonal communications skills)–this is at the level of social discourse: good morning, what did you do after school yesterday, it’s time for recess, etc. Kids younger than 10 do better in this approach because the language and cognitive tasks they need to use are much less complex than those of older kids and adults. They need something that’s referred to as CALP (cognitive and academic language proficiency). Around about 4th or 5th grade is when these skills become really critical. They don’t have in-depth language or an understanding of the cognitive tasks because those kinds of things often are explained in abstract or figurative language or uses words at deeper levels of meaning that aren’t necessarily found in social discourse. Here’s a fairly simple little example. A teacher says to her students: “The dinosaurs became extinct. That means they disappeared for good.” Students with social English only (which is what they pick up relatively quickly) may know only the primary or secondary meanings of good–which have to do with value, pleasure, wholeness, etc. The use of good in conjunction with the preposition “for” and in the context of “time” (forever) is something that the student probably will not pick up. Eventually, perhaps, with lots and lots of exposure to the language–but it is critical to know it for that academic context right away–otherwise they will seriously misunderstand the instruction.

In any case, kids all right on an immediate basis (first three years) but then over the long term (because grade-level is a moving target and the cognitive/abstract level becomes much more difficult) they flatten out and actually begin to lose ground as compared to their native-speaking peers. I can send you a graph of the research results on one of the original studies if you’re interested (subsequent research has borne out those findings). Just to summarize it, if you have a non-English speaker coming in as a kindergartner, they will have a pretty steep learning curve for grade-level performance in English until about the 4th grade–a similar curve no matter what the approach. But immersion and ESL only approaches top out at about the 35th percentile and by the time those students leave school in 12th grade they are actually performing at about the 24th percentile. If sheltered content instruction is added to an ESL-only approach you can bring that up to about the 35th percentile in 12th grade (but that is actually also lost ground because kids taught this way peak higher at around the 40th percentile). The only approaches that consistently bring kids up to grade level in English (and that’s the 50th percentile–smack dab in the middle of average) are approaches that have long-term bilingual support of some kind and long term ESL support in the content areas.

The only approaches that really get kids above grade level are one-way bilingual education (native language AND English) extended through 12th grade, and two-way bilingual education (so-called dual language programs–which is how some districts in CA are getting around prop 227). Two-way programs are where both native and non-native English speakers are taught fully in two languages. And both groups receive the majority of instruction in the non-native language. That approach brings non-native speakers well above the median and native speakers into the nosebleed percentiles by the time they all graduate.

The same kinds of trajectories in approaching the 50th percentile can be seen in kids who come later–between 5th and 8th grade. High school arrivals are problematic because they have less time to get a handle on the language and at the same time they have the most academically difficult tasks to perform.

So you can say that immersion works just as well as other approaches (and that’s really the best you can say) if you just look at that little chunk of time when whatever you do works about the same. That’s what state legislators do and that’s why kids are booted out of programs into the mainstream when they can hit the 35th percentile in grade-level performance in reading and math. But for a kid who starts in kindergarten that’s typically going to be in about mid-third grade to early fourth grade (all else being equal). That’s just at the point where academic language proficiency starts becoming important–and that’s right where we cut of support. So it really is a deeper picture with a lot of nuances. Even so, it’s not rocket science. We know in a general way what works best. It’s just being allowed to implement it with the best practices that becomes problematic.

(Thanks for inviting me back on this thread, btw, I so rarely get the chance to pontificate about this stuff anymore!)

13. J. Todd Ormsbee - 16 May 2006

Something that you may want to consider putting into the mix is the sociological reports about bilinguilism and English proficiency. Basically, this body of work shows that the degree of proficiency in English depends on the age when the child immigrated (of course), but more importantly on the context outside of school. These studies show that the more concentrated an ethnic environment the child lives in, the less likely they are to gain English proficiency, regardless of the programs at school. In other words, a child who can speak their first language in all other aspects of life has almost no probability of gaining English fluency; whereas an immigrant child in a dispersed context, with either native speakers or immigrants from all over whose lingua franca is English will end up with native-level proficiency. This is also true of second and third generation children (not just immigrant children).

So I’d be interested to see the breakdown of some of these studies by the social context of the children. For example, in California, where 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live, it is almost a given that an immigrant child will live in a concentrated ethnic enclave and will not gain English proficiency by High School. So I’d like to see how these ESL studies come out when you account for their out-of-school experience. For example, do children in cocentrated enclaves fair as well in the ESL-support you mention or do the fall below percentile norms? etc. Likewise, I’d like to see the sociological studies account for educational differences among their subjects (they may, but I’ve only read them second hand in Portes and Rumbaut’s Immigrant America).

14. belaja - 17 May 2006

These are interesting points. Speaking from my own anecdotal experience and from the little research I’m aware of, kids who live in first-language enclaves (even if it’s just their own home) definitely don’t pick it up as quickly as kids whose parents have mastered English to at least some degree. Personally, my feeling is that a lot of this is modeling and attitude as much as anything. They see their parents functioning in the second language and it becomes a possible model of behavior for them–less frightening or foreign. But if they see their parents, who may be very competent in other ways, suddenly reduced to grunts and gestures and pick up on any fear or anger or frustration that the parent feels in that situation, then that can be unsettling, frightening, disorienting. If it’s too much for the parent, it’s bound to be doubly intimidating for the child. If the parent self-isolates in the first-language enclave, so will the child to a greater or lesser degree. It’s not scientific, of course, but the kids who did the best in learning English and getting along academically were almost uniformly those who had at least one parent who made a serious effort to master and use English. This was not ALWAYS true, but almost ALWAYS. The actual uniform correlation is a parent who values education very highly and backs that up with action in some way–transmits the value to the child. But I’d say the language issue is also highly correlative.

Another important point is the one you made last. Kids come at different levels of preparedness for school or have vastly different educational backgrounds when they come in–leaving aside entirely the question of English proficiency. Again, this is not scientific in terms of my own observations, but there is research to back it up–and it only makes sense. If a kid came in at grade level in Spanish reading and math, we knew she was going to do fairly well. If he came in seriously behind for his age/grade level in Spanish, he invariably struggled. You could set your watch by it.

But a very good essay about the experience of the bilingual child in many of these respects is one called “My Divided Heart” by Luc Sante. He talks about all this on an experiential level that is very, very poignant. I read it in an issue of Utne Reader once and have never been able to find it since. I believe it comes from a memoir he wrote. I highly recommend it for a good sense of the kind of experience these kids have and the things (like non-English speaking parents, navigating different language environments, what a child brings to the table from his first language, etc.) the bear on the process of learning English and claiming a place in the community of the second language.

15. J. Todd Ormsbee - 17 May 2006

The only research I know of first-hand (I’m sure there’s much more of it) is about African Americans and poverty in relationship to what sociologists call the “neighborhood effect.” Basically, low-income African American who for whatever reason live in a mixed-socio-economic environment will do much better in school than African Americans in strictly low-income environment. Middle-class African Americans usually live in middle-class neighborhoods and perform relatively equally well compared to middle-class white students. Likewise, this correlation holds uniformly true for low-income white students, which points to issues of wealth rather than issues of race in educational achievement. See Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red for a synopsis of this research. It would stand to reason that these dynamics hold true for immigrant children as well, and their rates of bilinguilism and second-language mastery (from the Portes book I cited earlier) may well correspond to a neighborhood effect. The problem is that for immigrant parents, their settlement patterns depend on their values, not on the educational outcomes for their children (see again the Portes book).

16. belaja - 17 May 2006

I believe the latest research shows that income level of the parents is the number one predictor of educational success long-term for kids. Honestly, I don’t have the citation, but have heard that mentioned as an important study over the last several years in a number of contexts. So I think this is spot on.

Here’s an interesting article about the effect of the home language on students trying to do well in English academics:


It’s from the UK and I find it interesting that they don’t mention how the UK stacks up since they take very much a sink-or-swim approach. We’ve been in meetings recently about selling products in the UK and the people from there we talked to insisted that their students all do “just fine.” (Rolling eyes emoticon here.) It’s interesting to me though that the gap is about what I’d expect it to be with kids who are learning in a second language, given the fact that they will lose up to three years just getting the language well in place. Really, maybe we’re not doing so bad. Though Australia beats us, as do the Canucks (as usual!)

17. belaja - 21 May 2006

Just one last comment. This article is interesting about the state of American schools. What is says about your experience, Todd, I don’t know–maybe that we let too many people go to college? Or that so many people go that they don’t think they have to work?


18. J. Todd Ormsbee - 22 May 2006

Interesting article. I’m less concerned about how American kids do in comparison to other countries (which is a really difficult comparison to make, given the vastly different education systems), than I am with how students perform within the American system. California’s education problems, for example, aren’t because we score below France; it’s because we’re producing high school graduates who can’t do Jr. High School level work, and then we’re sending them to college.

I agree with the writer that our education system gives us lots of 2nd chances at education. But the way it’s working out across the nation is that it’s become *normative* to go to college, and so getting into college has become an end-in-itself, which has transformed the way we educate at lower levels and has resulted in the elimination of other kinds of education.

Of course, on the flip side of this is the drastically unequal access to higher education that the wealthy still enjoy, and the status their children enjoy from the universities they attend. Universities such as California’s CSU system, for example, was set precisely to eliminate (or at least mitigate) that inequality. I also agree with that goal. The problem is that in striving to provide equal access to education, our goals have collided with other political barriers such as the anti-tax brigades here in CA–the result has been a K-12 system that as a whole (there are local exceptions) often fails to give students good quality education, fails to provide alternatives to college, puts a huge burden on universities to provide remedial work, and sets kids up for failure in those universities.

19. Andrew Pass Educational Services, LLC - 14 June 2006

I completely agree that too few students are taught to think about anything substantive. Indeed, we live in a culture that stresses that every opinion is equal. Its hard for people to hear that the best opinions are the best supported opinions and support comes from disciplined thinking about empirically based knowledge. I’m not writing that students should just memorize facts but if they don’t learn facts they don’t have anything worthwhile to think about.

20. J. Todd Ormsbee - 14 June 2006

welcome Andrew. I hope you pop in again.


21. a voice that cries in the wilderness - 23 April 2011

California is so full of $h!t. Making the teachers have a CLAD certificate is crazy. Are teacher soon going to be requiered to get an EBONICS certification?

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