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Language a key to SL learning

Monday, November 11, 2002

'Minority and poor know more than what tests show'

A new report shows minority and poor students continue to fall behind their peers across Iowa. "The gap is still there, and in some cases it's getting worse," said Ted Stilwell, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

The achievement gap between minorities and non-minorities in subjects such as math, reading and science is continuing to widen in towns across the state, a trend which the Storm Lake school system is in the vanguard in trying to correct. A number of new programs and resources have been put into play, but progress is frustratingly slow.

Storm Lake is not exempt from the wide achievement gaps found in the state's metro school systems such as Des Moines and Waterloo in recent testing. The proficiency levels of English Language Learners (ELL) students and non-ELL students differ by as much as 62 percent in some subjects.

Storm Lake superintendent Dr. Bill Kruse said Stilwell's concern over the disparities in achievement numbers can be echoed in Storm Lake, and said he feels the district is doing its best to change those statistics for the better.

"We have put in place a number of supportive resources to try to close that gap, including a reading program in elementary schools, after-school programs in the middle and elementary schools and summer school for all students," Kruse said. "With these we hope that we can catch (ELL students) up in reading and math and other skills. At this point, however, those gaps are here."

The achievement differences which are seen in Storm Lake and across Iowa are based on figures from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, a series of objective tests taken each year by students in fourth, eighth and 11th grades. The tests record proficiency in the core subjects of reading and math for students in all three grades and science for those in eighth and 11th grades.

In the Storm Lake schools, 46 percent of fourth grade ELL students were proficient in reading, while 69 percent of non-ELL fourth graders were proficient. The disparities grew as the students grew older, as thirty-one percent of eighth grade ELL students were proficient compared to 63 percent of eighth grade non-ELL students, with the gap rising to 14 percent and 76 percent in 11th grade.

Results were similar in math and science. There was a 21 percent gap in math in fourth graders, a 39 percent disparity in eighth grade math and a 48 percent gap between ELL and non-ELL math proficiency skills among juniors in high school. Science proficiency skills among eighth graders differed by 42 percent and ELL and non-ELL students in 11th grade had a proficiency difference of 45 percent.

Kruse said he feels one of the primary factors for the wide achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students is the format of the ITBS itself, which can be problematic for students who have no or little knowledge of the English language.

"The reason for these scores is that these tests record the ability of a student to read the English language, comprehend what is being said and then answering correctly on an objective test," Kruse said. "Many of our ELL students have difficulty doing that. But, if there was a conversational test or something using observational skills those scores would probably rise, because they may know a lot more than what the objective tests show. Unfortunately, the objective tests is how all students are being judged."

While Storm Lake has already taken steps to try to correct the problem, Kruse said it could be a little while before the proficiency numbers of the ELL and non-ELL students start to become more similar.

"Even though we've been at this for a while, it's been said that it takes five to seven years to be conversationally literate in English and up to 10 years to fully understand the entire language, so we've got a long ways to go yet," Kruse said. "We've only had our tutorial programs in operation for three years, so we're really just starting out right now. We just need to continue with the programs that we've already put in place."

"I feel confident about what we're doing," Kruse continued. "I feel we're definitely on the right path. It's just going to take some time."

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