'Accountability' vs. Science in the Bilingual Education Debate
By James Crawford

How should we judge the success of bilingual education, structured English immersion, and other programs for English language learners (ELLs)? Many members of the public and most news media seem to rely primarily on standardized tests of student achievement. Thanks to the ‘accountability’ movement, scores from a growing number of tests – as reported by district, school, grade, and numerous demographic categories – are easily accessible via the Internet. For those interested in educational issues, the temptation to download and analyze these numbers is often irresistible. That’s especially true when the experts are divided about what works; it seems that research evidence can always be cited to support one conflicting theory or another. Frustrated laypersons tend to ask: Why not draw our own conclusions based on ‘real world’ test results?

Following this logic, the Boston Globe (2002) recently editorialized about the need to ‘reform’ bilingual education in Massachusetts. As proof, it cited data fromthe Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a state-mandated test on which ‘children with limited English proficiency failed at more than three times the rate of other students.’ Such a disparity must mean that something is terribly wrong with the way these children are being taught, the newspaper concluded.Whatcould bemore obvious?

Unfortunately, the meaning of test scores is seldom transparent. In this case, it is especially clouded by language; so much so that the Globe editors might want to reconsider their reasoning. The MCAS is a test designed to assess the academic skills of proficient English speakers, and it is administered entirely in English. Children who do not understand the language of the test will have trouble, to varying degrees, in showing what they have learned. If limited-English-proficient (LEP) students scored well on the MCAS, it would be reasonable to conclude that something was terribly wrong with the test, or that these students were no longer LEP. In other words, the MCAS is the wrong yardstick for measuring the academic achievement of ELLs and for evaluating programs that serve them.

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