Immersion Incorporates Standards
The ACIE Newsletter, February 1998, Vol. 1, No. 2
By Marty Abbott, Foreign Language Program Coordinator, Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax, Virginia
The impact of state and national standards has left school districts across the country reeling with curricular changes and the need to reprioritize budget allocations and assessment initiatives. Although national standards have been developed in all disciplines, we remain a nation of 50 states plus the District of Columbia, each with a different set of state standards and possibly state assessments.
What impact does this have on immersion programs? How can they survive amid the changing expectations and political whims of state legislatures?
Perhaps in sharing our experiences in Virginia, we can engage in a discussion of the impact of these initiatives on early language programs and implement some proactive measures to address them.
Fairfax County Public Schools' Partial-Immersion Program
The program began in 1989 and has been implemented at 13 elementary schools in four languages: French, German, Japanese, and Spanish. Students begin in first grade and learn math, science, and health in the target language, and social studies and language arts in English. Fairfax County has mathematics Program of Studies tests that are based on our local curriculum, which students take each year in English. Two evaluations of the program (one in 1991 and the other in 1996) both indicate that students in the immersion program score as well as or better than non-immersion students on both nationally-normed and criterion-referenced tests in math and English language arts.
New State Testing
In an effort to raise student achievement and encouraged by the Governor of Virginia, the State School Board initiated a statewide mandatory testing program in the four core areas: math, science, social studies, and English language arts in grades 3, 5, and 8, as well as prescribed courses and testing for the high school level. Schools will be issued an annual report card, which will be made public, indicating test scores and percent of students who are successful on the tests.
Challenges for the Immersion Program
Because the students in the immersion program had always taken standardized tests in English, most grade-level teams of teachers had worked out a way to introduce students to the vocabulary they would need in order to be able to make their way through the tests. We all know that students who have taken tests with similar directions and similar formats usually do better on standardized tests, and this was important for the immersion students, who were accustomed to reading directions for homework assignments and tests in the target language. In particular, it was important for the students of a non-cognate language (such as Japanese) to be introduced to terms like integer and quotient in English. The preparation of students was left up to individual teams, since we did not want to mandate that it had to be done by the English-speaking teachers on the team. In most cases it was indeed done during the English portion of the day, but for program public relations it was beneficial to have the teachers agree among themselves exactly how and when it would take place.
The new state tests in Virginia present new challenges. The tests are multiple-choice and based on new state Standards of Learning that tend to focus on the core knowledge that students learn in a discipline rather than the process or problem-solving aspects of a curriculum. They also do not coincide with our current curriculum objectives in each grade level, so curriculum revisions are being made. This has an impact on the materials that have already been prepared in the target language.
To manage this challenge, we have developed packets that can be sent home of activities that parents can do with their children that highlight the necessary vocabulary. Trade books that make use of the terms and concepts can also be borrowed by students for reading at home in English. The grade-level teams of teachers in some cases are also working together to figure out the best way to prepare students. We are attempting to translate as much of the new materials as possible for use by teachers during the immersion portion of the day.
It will be several years before we are able to determine the impact of this mandatory testing on the academic preparation of students in the immersion program. Prior research studies and data analysis provide school system administrators with the necessary support to continue the program. Careful supervision of curriculum changes and translations will provide teachers with the support they need. Periodic sharing of information with parents strengthens their resolve to keep their children in the program. Anyone involved with immersion programs knows that it is "labor intensive" for all; new state standards and mandatory testing simply challenge us to figure out ways to manage change. We look at the results of immersion programs with students, and we know it's all worth it!