Cut off

Michigan’s third-grade reading law could penalize bilingual programs

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Elementary schoolers in an English class at Academy of the Americas in Southwest Detroit. More than 70 percent of third-graders at the school could be held back starting in 2020.

The grocery store down the street from Academy of Americas blasts Mexican pop music over the radio. A few blocks away, a taco truck takes orders in English and Spanish. On the Academy’s playground, third-graders go about the business of play using whichever language happens to land on their tongues.

Back in the classroom, kindergartners learn to add, subtract, and find the United States on a map using Spanish. Third-graders sit through English class, then walk across the hall for science class with a teacher who addresses them only in Spanish.  The school, like the Southwest Detroit neighborhood that surrounds it, is truly bilingual, and it has the support of parents and experts who argue that “language immersion” at an early age helps English- and Spanish-speakers effectively learn two languages for the price of one.

But dual-language immersion programs like this one are about to run smack into a controversial state law. Beginning in 2020, third-graders at Academy of the Americas won’t be able to move on to the fourth grade until they pass a state reading exam — in English.

Critics have raised a wide range of questions about the 2016 law, which would have caused nearly half of Michigan students to be held back a grade if the law took effect last year.

But perhaps most puzzling is that a law designed to improve literacy in Michigan could penalize the small handful of programs with a track record of teaching students  — especially English learners — to read in not one, but two languages.

When 89 third-graders at the Academy took the test in 2016, only a single student met state standards. If the law had been in effect, almost every one would have repeated the third grade.

While the school is among the most highly sought programs in the district, the low reading scores were not terribly surprising. Kindergarten classes at the academy are conducted in Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. By the third grade, students hear  Spanish for 60 percent of the day. Experts in bilingual education say students in such programs typically fall behind their English-only peers in reading, then catch up around middle school.

But under state law, third-graders in Michigan’s roughly 10 bilingual programs could be held back anyway.

“I can’t wrap my head around it,” said Norma Hernandez, the district’s former director of the Office of Bilingual Education. “Our kids are going to be left behind.”

Academy of the Americas was founded by Hispanic parents determined to help their children hold on to their native language. Learning English, they knew, was both inevitable and necessary in the United States. But why couldn’t a school also help children master the language spoken at the family dinner table?

As it turns out, dual-immersion schools like the Academy are backed by solid research showing that students who learn more than one language from an early age tend to catch up to their monolingual peers in English reading. This holds true even for students who speak Spanish at home, and it also helps them maintain their native language. More than 1,000 similar programs are in place across the country.

“They’re learning to read and write in both languages,” said Cecilia Jungo, a parent at the school, speaking in Spanish. “They’re totally bilingual,” she added.

Earlier this month, folders were propped up on every desk in a third-grade social studies classroom at the Academy, forming a barrier in case students felt tempted to scan their neighbors’ tests. As some began to fidget, the teacher slipped in a vocabulary lesson.

“If you are already finished with the test,” she said, speaking in Spanish, “just put your head on the — what?”

“The table!” the students shouted — also in Spanish.

In the hallway outside, Principal Nicholas Brown said that this minilesson will eventually improve the students’ performance on language tests, in English as well as Spanish.

“We’re teaching kids to read and write,” he said. “When they learn to read in Spanish, they are able to transfer those skills to English, so that when English is introduced they’re able to attack it.”

He admits that this approach won’t pay dividends on English reading tests right away, but says they will catch up by middle school.

But this model of reading is “not the same theory that the lawmakers were adhering to when they developed the law,” said Paula Winke, a professor at Michigan State who studies bilingual education. Legislators pointed to a different body of research — studies showing that students who don’t learn to read English well by the third grade are less likely to graduate high school.

Both models may hold some truth, Winke said, but the law only makes room for one. The learning patterns of bilingual students, well-established by researchers, were apparently “not considered,” she added.  

Researchers at Michigan State are studying how the law will affect all students in immersion programs, including native English speakers. But they have already concluded that third-graders who speak English as a second language could be held back at disproportionate rates. According to Winke’s analysis of previous years’ test data, some 70 percent could be flunked.

Those projections are forcing dual-language programs to make tough decisions, especially when most of their students arrive in kindergarten speaking a language other than English.

Escuela Avancemos!, a charter school that stands only a few blocks from the Academy, offers some of its students a similar dual-language program. Kindergartners – most of whom speak Spanish at home — hear and speak Spanish for 90 percent of the school day. The proportion of English rises in each subsequent year.

But thanks to the reading law, that could change. “We’ve had to play around with those percentages,” Principal Sean Townsin told Chalkbeat during a school visit last month. “We’ve had to tweak it a little bit, especially in anticipation of the third-grade reading law.”

Townsin acknowledges that an extra hour or two of English instruction per day might not be enough to save his students from repeating the third grade. Last year, 39 of the 47 students tested in reading would have flunked. He also plans to assemble samples of students’ work, taking advantage of a section of the law that allows students to prove their reading ability to the state by submitting a portfolio instead of taking a test.

Brown, principal at the Academy, also plans to send portfolios to the state, but he won’t reduce the amount of Spanish students hear in class. He thinks the bilingual program is largely responsible for the school’s enrollment growth of 50 percent in the last two decades, no small accomplishment in a city where schools compete fiercely for students.

What’s more, he says parents would revolt if  he watered down the immersion program.

“At the end of the day, our parents are very clear” in their support for the program,” he explained. “The school was created as a direct response to a community need.”

The Academy was founded in 1992 by a group of Hispanic parents who wanted a school that wouldn’t alienate the children of Southwest Detroit from the language of their grandparents. They believed that hearing teachers and classmates speak Spanish would help students stay connected to their culture and make them more employable.

Brown, the son of a Venezuelan and a Louisianan, knew first-hand that in traditional schools, English can replace a student’s native language rather than complement it. He says he rejected Spanish as a teenager and refused to speak it for seven years, relenting only after a visit to Venezuela made clear that the language was a link to his family.

These days, when students say “hello” in the halls, he responds in Spanish.

But he knows that these students could soon pay a price for their bilingualism. Flunking a grade can have severe emotional consequences, and there is little evidence that repeating a grade is beneficial to a child’s learning in the long-run.

“If students are retained because they didn’t pass a reading test, that’s going to hinder their education,” said Diane Rodriguez, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in bilingual education. “If those legislators went to another country, and they were given three years to pass an exam in a second language, I’m wondering if they’d be able to pass it.”

Brown, for his part, is waiting for clarification about the law before it goes into effect in the 2019-2020 school year.

“I have more questions than answers,” he said, adding that he would like to see the law changed: “I hope the program will speak for  itself.”

Barring a change in course from the Legislature, his hopes rest with parents and with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. Under the law, parents can request an exemption if their child fails the third-grade reading test, but the request must be approved by the superintendent for the child to move on to the next grade.

deysi martinez
PHOTO: Koby Levin
Deysi Martinez, president of the PTA at Academy of the Americas, says the state should test third-graders there in Spanish.

Parents at the Academy, however, argue that the state shouldn’t use its resources to grade student portfolios and process exemptions to the law.

Deysi Martinez, PTA president, noted that some states, like California and Colorado, allow students in immersion programs to prove their reading skills by taking additional reading tests in Spanish.

“In third grade, they’re reading mostly in Spanish,” she said of students at the Academy. “It doesn’t make sense for the test to be in English.”

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear. Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers. They’re hoping that officials in the Devos education department won’t be able to avoid coming to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That puts Michigan on track to become the second state to ask for a waiver from the federal law that requires a child who arrived in the U.S. this year to take a standardized English test within a year after arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking Devos’ education department to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 6 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.