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Language barrier impacts testing

This is the second of three articles on gaps in achievement test scores in Decatur schools

By Bayne Hughes · 340-2432

Educators point to the language barrier as the major reason Hispanic students score low on standardized tests, although poverty and illiteracy in the language of their home countries are also factors.

Director of Special Education Stefanie Underwood oversees Decatur’s English-as-a-Second-Language Program. She said the federal “No Child Left Behind” law forces students to take the standardized tests after only a year in the country, when studies show that it takes five to seven years for a student to become proficient enough to test as well as English speakers.

Underwood said the language barrier also makes it difficult to score well in math because of the word problems.

A ‘gateway city’

Decatur ranks fifth in the state in the number of ESL students.

The city’s Hispanic students scored about 4 percent lower than the state average on the state’s math and reading test. Underwood called Decatur a “gateway city,” because it has a high number of immigrants new to the United States.

She said this could be the reason that Decatur’s limited English proficient students (any students needing English language instruction) students scored an average of about 12 points lower than the state average.

“Decatur gets a lot of new immigrants fresh from Mexico,” Underwood said.

Grace Comontofski-Cuevas is a Mexican immigrant, translator and Hispanic advocate who helped Wayne Farms recruit Hispanic workers from the Sand Mountain area in the late 1980s. She said the Hispanics found opportunity in Decatur, brought their families here and passed the word to others.

“It all started because of jobs, but Hispanics are very family oriented and they found it good here for families,” Comontofski-Cuevas said. “They established roots here, and now they’re very productive parts of the community.”

ESL students must learn the same information as their black and white classmates, so Underwood said teachers must be creative and more visual with their instruction. They clip and draw pictures and use a lot of charts and graphs.

“The cognitive ability to reason and make the connections are usually there, it’s just that the language isn’t there,” Underwood said. “It’s not a sign of intellect or poor teaching. They’re just not English proficient and they’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

Underwood said the lack of education in their home country leaves the Hispanic students unfamiliar with the academic vocabulary that educators use daily in the classroom.

There is hope, however, for the city and ESL test scores. Underwood said the state Department of Education is looking at using the new ACCESS (Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners) test.

Although totally in English, Underwood said ACCESS should more fairly measure the students’ progress. The state would then judge the schools on progress on the ACCESS test and their ability to move students out of the ESL program.

Tuesday: School officials address gaps in test scores

ESL students

The Alabama Department of Education shows the number of English-as-Second-Language students reported by the following local school systems.

  • 1. DeKalb County — 1,091.

  • 2. Mobile County — 980.

  • 3. Montgomery County —889.

  • 4. Huntsville City — 843.

  • 5. Decatur City 809.

  • 6. Hoover City — 734.

  • 7. Albertville City — 729.

  • 10. Fort Payne City — 687.

  • 11. Birmingham City — 563.

  • 12. Blount County — 495.

  • 13. Russellville City — 483.

  • 14. Chilton County —383.

  • 15. Madison County — 373.

    Others of interest: Lawrence County, 59; Morgan County, 214; Limestone County, 243; Athens City, 226 and Hartselle City, 59.

    Bayne Hughes

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