Sunday, July 05, 2009

Twice as many advance out of language class

by Pat Kossan | The Arizona Republic
Jun. 23, 2009

Nearly 40,000 Arizona students will advance out of English-language learning programs and into regular classes this coming school year, more than double the number of students who made the move just two years ago, the Arizona Department of Education will report today.

The report, obtained Monday by The Arizona Republic, comes days before the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether Arizona adequately funds its programs to help students learn English. A decision in the 17-year-old lawsuit, known as Flores vs. Arizona, could come as soon as Thursday.

State schools Superintendent Tom Horne said the rise in the number of students testing out of English-learner courses is a direct result of a new and controversial four-hour-a-day course that focuses on English grammar, reading and writing. Schools began to put the new program into place during the 2007-08 school year. The state mandated it for every language learner this past year.

Students must pass a state exam testing their ability to speak, read and write English before they can exit the learning programs and move to regular grade-level classes.

In the 2006-07 school year, when students who were still learning English averaged 30 to 60 minutes of language instruction a day, 17,813 students passed the exam, or 12 percent of all English learners in the state. This past year, 29 percent of English learners passed the exam, most of them in kindergarten through sixth grade, officials said.

"It went from half an hour to an hour to four hours (of instruction). That's a radical difference," Horne said. "It's predictable it would effect results. This enables them to compete with other students on an equal basis."

Despite the test results, some educators are not as convinced that the new program will help English learners in the long run.

Many say the biggest question remains: Will the newly proficient students have the language skills and academic knowledge to catch up and keep up with their peers in math, science and history?

The answer won't emerge until today's elementary students reach middle school, when one-time English learners historically began to lag and their average AIMS math and reading scores slipped. Some educators say the state's English test is too easy to pass; others worry that segregating students for four hours of English a day deprives them of an opportunity to keep up in other subjects.

The daily four-hour immersion course was put into place as the state's most recent effort to comply with part of a 2000 U.S. District Court order in the Flores case. The court required Arizona to create an English-learner program, determine how much it would cost and fund it. Schools requested $274 million last school year to put the new four-hour program in place. The state provided $40 million. Many school officials say that's not enough to pay for the added teachers, classroom space, and textbooks needed to make the program work.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether Arizona is funding its English-learner program adequately and not arbitrarily. Justices also are considering whether federal judges overstepped their roles in their efforts to push the state to comply with the 2000 District Court order and meddled too deeply into state business.

The Flores case is based on the Equal Education Opportunity Act of 1974, which requires states to help students learn English and succeed in school.

The justices also are considering if Arizona's compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 has fulfilled that requirement.

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