Saturday, August 09, 2008

Texas is failing students who need bilingual education

Federal court case should force changes in Texas's bilingual education system
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A federal court ruling has intensified the debate over how best to educate this state's growing number of students with limited English language skills.

In a ruling issued last Friday, U.S. Senior District Judge William Wayne Justice said Texas is failing those students and gave the state six months to find a remedy. About 140,000 junior high and high school students in Texas fall into the limited English proficiency category. Austin's school district has 7,493 students, or about 9 percent, in its English as a Second Language classes.

The Texas Education Agency intends to appeal the ruling, but that won't change reality in the classrooms. Texas' system, in which students with limited English skills are thrown into regular English-language classes after the sixth grade, isn't working.

A majority of those students fail the state's standardized tests in high school, and many drop out. No one has a firm grip on dropout rates in Texas because they have been kept artificially low. The dropout rate has been estimated at around 33 percent statewide, but at some schools it is shockingly high.

In the August edition of Texas Monthly magazine, senior executive editor Paul Burka wrote about his daughter's tenure at Austin's Johnston High School, a school with a high percentage of students lacking English skills. It has been shuttered by the state for repeated failures on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test. While the Austin school district showed a 2 percent dropout rate for Johnston, Burka wrote, the actual rate was more than 75 percent.

Burka's daughter, who was in the liberal arts magnet program then at Johnston, began as one of 750 freshmen. She ended her senior year as one of 223 who walked across the stage with a diploma. Even if a number of those freshmen had moved or changed schools, hundreds still dropped out or failed to graduate.

Going through life without a high school diploma limits opportunities, wages and advancement. Education is the surest key to success in life, and Texas is seeing far too many students fall away from that opportunity because of their limited English.

Implementing the court's order will be expensive. A reasonable estimate is $100 million a year to establish effective bilingual education in Texas' public schools. State officials can rail against the judge's ruling and appeal as far as they can, but that won't alter the facts. To reduce scandalously high dropout rates, Texas needs to change the way it educates students who haven't mastered English. It does neither the students nor the state any good to ignore that reality.

Some state legislators recognize the problem and have proposed changes to improve bilingual education. So far, they haven't gained much traction, but the court ruling should be a wake-up call for lawmakers who still don't grasp the urgency of the state's high dropout rate.

And here, again, is the conundrum created by the law that forces closure of schools, like Johnston High, whose students repeatedly fail the standardized tests. Many of those students failed because their English is limited and the immersion program didn't work for them.

So how is closing the school, but maintaining the same English immersion system, going to help them complete their education?

The judge's ruling brings the situation into sharp focus: Texas is failing its limited English proficiency students, and closing the schools they attend does nothing at all to help them.

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