Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Rethinking the "Gap": High-Stakes Testing and Spanish-Speaking Students in Colorado

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Rethinking the "Gap": High-Stakes Testing and Spanish-Speaking Students in Colorado

Article excerpt

Culture consists of the understanding of knowledge shared by members of a group of people. Much of this knowledge is not conscious knowledge; it is largely tacit and taken for granted---once learned it becomes what one sees with, but seldom what one sees.

Barrera (1992, p. 12)

During the past 5 years, we have been involved in a series of research projects designed to document the impact that the high-stakes testing program in Colorado is having on students who are English-language learners (ELLs) or limited English proficient (LEP). (1) In Colorado, the high-stakes testing program is known as the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). Our research documents the number of students who are ELLs in Colorado, the types of instructional programs they are served by, and the types of assessments schools are using to identify and reclassify these students; our research also examines the impact that this purported educational reform is having on the academic achievement of ELL students (see Escamilla et al., 2000; Escamilla, Chavez, Fitts, Mahon, & Vigil, 2003a; Escamilla, Chavez, Mahon, & Riley-Bernal, 2002; Escamilla, Mahon, Riley-Bernal, & Rutledge, 2001).

The demographic data and political landscape in Colorado mirror other states in the United States. Demographically, there is a large and growing number of ELL students (more than 70,000 from 2001 to 2002). The vast majority of these ELLs speak Spanish as a first language (more than 85% in Colorado). ELLs are heavily concentrated in urban school districts in the state (more than 25% of the ELLs in Colorado are in one school district). Additionally, ELL students who speak Spanish are predominantly Latino in their ethnic membership (Escamilla et al., 2003a).

Added to the above, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) has reported to the public that there is a large and persistent gap in achievement between Latino students and other Colorado students, most predominately between Spanish-speaking ELLs and other Colorado school children (Lenhart, 2003; Mitchell, 2002). Furthermore, reports to the public by officials at the CDE attribute this perceived gap in achievement between Latinos, ELLs, and others to "language handicaps" in general and to bilingual education in particular (Lenhart, 2003; Mitchell, 2002).

The premise that there is a gap in achievement that can at least partially be attributed to Spanish-speaking Latinos and bilingual education programs is, no doubt, partially responsible for the various political debates about whether bilingual education programs in Colorado and the United State should continue to exist or be replaced by English immersion and/or other programs. These political debates led to a proposed amendment to the Colorado Constitution. Titled English for the Children in Colorado, Amendment 31 was proposed and subsequently defeated by Colorado voters in November 2002. (2) However, the debate about how to best educate Spanish-speaking students and Latinos continues. The debate has been intensified by the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Under No Child Left Behind, all students in Grades 3 through 8 must be assessed annually in reading and mathematics, and results of this testing must demonstrate that schools with disadvantaged students are making progress in meeting state content standards. Furthermore, ELL students must take state assessments in English after they have been in U.S. schools for 3 years (U.S. Department of Education, 2002).

Politicians, policy makers, and educators seem to accept without question the existence of a gap in achievement. There seems to be no debate about the existence of a gap, therefore, the major policy and instructional program questions center on how to "close" this gap. Colorado, as other states, has witnessed a flurry of activities and initiatives designed to assist schools in closing the gap. Activities include the CDE's (2002) creation of a special task force to close the achievement gap and the Denver Public School's (DPS; 2003a) special task force Closing the Achievement Gap: Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners. …

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