ESOL Students in D.C. Area Narrow Achievement Gap

In a kindergarten class at Montgomery Knolls Elementary in Silver Spring, students with limited English practice their skills while participating in a pretend produce stand.
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2009

English language learners have become star pupils in the Washington region, drawing accolades for top-performing schools that serve immigrant communities and showing standout results on state reading tests and national rankings.

From 2003 to 2008, gaps in the pass rates between English learners -- pupils designated as having limited English proficiency -- and other students narrowed by half on Maryland and Virginia state tests. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked Virginia's English learners first in the nation for fourth-grade reading and Maryland's fifth.

In January, the trade publication Education Week reported that achievement gaps in reading for students of limited English proficiency were smaller in Maryland and Virginia than in most other states. According to D.C. data, English learners in the District's public schools perform at about the citywide average in reading, which is low but climbing.

The success of English learners in the region is partly a matter of where many of them live: Montgomery and Fairfax counties, achievement powerhouses that have trained their formidable resources on burgeoning populations of immigrant students. Montgomery has more than 17,000 such students, Fairfax about 34,000.

It's significant, too, that English learners in Maryland and Virginia tend to come from families that are more affluent and better educated than their counterparts in other states. But education leaders say progress is being made across income levels and county lines, and among students of many different native tongues.

"These kids can learn, and they can learn at high rates, and both systems have shown that," said Montgomery Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

The performance of English learners has been overshadowed, educators say, by controversy over whether the group should even be included in tests used to rate schools under the federal No Child Left Behind law or to determine whether students receive a diploma.

Virginia educators, with Fairfax County at the fore, recently protested a federal requirement that virtually all of the state's 87,000 English learners take annual reading tests equivalent to those given to everyone else. Maryland's State Board of Education, under pressure from school systems, relaxed a mandate for all students, including the state's 45,000 English learners, to pass a battery of exit exams before graduation, starting with this year's class.

The disputes diverted attention from the students, who, as it turns out, are doing quite well.

"Hard work and effort really pay off," said Deann Collins, principal of Montgomery Knolls Elementary School.

At the Silver Spring school, the effort to close the gap begins before English learners reach kindergarten. The school, with 432 students, offers pre-kindergarten to 60 students, most of limited English ability. Preschool teachers spend several days each year meeting parents at home to show them how to teach children vocabulary from books and how to add and subtract using pennies.

In a kindergarten class one morning this month, teacher Ilene Fox assigned four boys the roles of clerk and customer in a make-believe grocery store, stocked with shiny plastic vegetables, the names printed prominently on index cards, an exercise in vocabulary-building.

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