ESOL Students in Md., Va. Leaping Ahead of U.S. Peers

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.

One boy asked his classmate for a green apple.

"How much does it cost?"

"Two," the classmate replied, tentatively.

"Two what?" asked Fox, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL.

"Two moneys," he replied.

"Two dollars," she corrected.

Last year, two local schools in which a majority of students are English learners won national and state awards. Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring received a Maryland Blue Ribbon and Graham Road Elementary School in the Falls Church area a National Blue Ribbon for achievement. It was a watershed moment for Montgomery and Fairfax schools, because language-minority populations in the two counties have doubled in this decade.

"The caliber of our professionals in those counties is outstanding," said Shelley Wong, an associate education professor at George Mason University who is president of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. "They are doing research, constantly thinking about how to make connections between communities, families and schools."

Statewide, the share of Maryland students with limited English proficiency who passed reading tests rose from 18 percent in 2003 to 65 percent in 2008, according to results for the Maryland School Assessments in grades 3 to 8 and a related high school test. The achievement gap for English learners dwindled from 45 percentage points to 18 points.

Similarly, 78 percent of Virginia students with limited English proficiency in elementary and middle schools passed Standards of Learning reading tests in 2008, up from 55 percent in 2003. The gap between English learners and other students in that time narrowed from 21 percentage points to nine.

With test data, there are often caveats. Virginia has changed the rules over the years for testing English-learners in reading, allowing some of the least conversant students to take alternative tests. That practice has boosted pass rates slightly. State officials said the effect on last year's scores was only a point or two.

English learners in Virginia are making progress on other tests, too, including high school exit exams in science and history, and are scoring well on nationally normed tests. Virginia fourth-graders with limited English ability posted the highest reading proficiency rate in the nation -- 21 percent -- on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the nation's report card. Maryland's proficiency rate was 15 percent, and the national average was 7 percent proficiency. (D.C. school populations were too small to be measured.)

English learners in local schools typically get structured, rigorous English lessons for about an hour a day, learning the vocabulary of academic subjects rather than conversational skills. They spend the rest of the day in regular classrooms, studying the same content as their classmates, with help from the classroom teacher and from trained ESOL teachers. Over time, English lessons become fewer, and students eventually spend all of their time in regular classrooms.

At Fairfax High School, half of students in ESOL programs take voluntary summer classes. During the academic year, many English learners stay after school two afternoons a week for extra help, with free transportation home.

Students in Kathleen Montgomery's ESOL class at Fairfax High range in age from 14 to 20, although most are termed freshmen. One morning this month, studying a list of science terms, students struggled with the definition of "compose."

"So, when something is composed, it is made up of . . . ?" one girl offered.

"It's parts making up a whole," a boy continued. He used the word in a sentence: "What is a soccer team composed of?"

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