Standardized Testing: Overcoming
the Threat to Immersion Education

The ACIE Newsletter, March 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

By Daunna Minnich, Parent, Palo Alto Unified School District, Palo Alto, California



The current legislative craze for standardized testing is creating daunting battles for immersion programs. It's a battle over scores of tests given in English. Immersion outsiders (district administrators, school boards, and the general public) think immersion students' scores are too low, while immersion insiders (parents, teachers, and principals) think the scores should be overlooked until late elementary years, when immersion students will shine.

Outsiders think the test scores spell educational failure and demand earlier introduction of English as the solution. Insiders believe introducing English too early would compromise or even sabotage educational success.

The problem is not test scores. It's not English skills. It's not immersion. The problem is communication about immersion education.

The Palo Alto Unified School District, in northern California, has a small two-way Spanish immersion program, grades K to 4 so far, at Escondido Elementary School. The district is watchful of our test scores in both English and Spanish, but test scores have not been a bone of contention. Our young kids may not score quite so high as their non-immersion peers, but they're doing well in most areas. Below are some ideas from our experience that might help you - but there are no quick fixes. Getting the decision-makers to understand immersion is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

Educate administrators and board members by inviting them to a parent education session.

Hold a special parent education event just on testing of immersion students. In our district, we include standardized testing as an important part of the information we provide for prospective parents. As a new program with no track record, we have relied on the studies of Dr. Kathryn Lindholm of San Jose State University. Her graphs show the grade-by-grade ups and downs of both English and Spanish speakers in different subject areas. Even if parents' eyes glaze over from data overload, one thing is clear: by the end, immersion students do very well academically in both languages.

Invite board members, the superintendent, the director of curriculum. Maybe only one will come, but making a public show of standardized testing expectations is a good public relations move. If the VIPs don't attend, write up the event for your school newsletter and publish it; then highlight the article and send it to the non-attendees.

Standardized testing information has to be provided for new crops of parents, so repeat the event often and invite the VIPs who have never attended.

Put your test scores in their immersion education context.

Since our program is just one strand in a school, the immersion scores are mixed with non-immersion scores, so the immersion data has to be disaggregated from the school data. This task falls to the assistant superintendent, who is in charge of the program. He reports immersion results to top administrators and board members.

In his presentation, he can easily remind or educate these decision-makers about what is normal for immersion students. He always assures them of ongoing vigilance in tracking the students' progress to ensure the program will fulfill the promise of academic success for all students.

If you don't have a well-placed friendly administrator to interpret the test results for the administration and board, and if your principal isn't comfortable in the role, your parent association can do it. Write a letter, or better yet, meet face-to-face with the district's curriculum director and/or superintendent. Go prepared with simple handouts, the more graphic the better. Speak at a board meeting: take handouts that speak for themselves and introduce them in the brief time allotted for items not on the agenda (three minutes in our district) - or better still, see if you can get on the agenda to explain the significance of test results.

Important! In all of your communications with the board, administrators, prospective parents - everyone: Be positive and professional. Be accurate. Don't whitewash anything. Assure the educational community that you, as parents, came into immersion with many questions and concerns, and then explain why you are not alarmed by the early results and why you have confidence in a positive future outcome. Your underlying message is, "Your concerns are our concerns; let us share what we have learned…"

Establish a personal connection with the VIPs by holding coffees, and use the opportunity to educate them casually.

We hold coffees with the superintendent, individual board members (each of them, so they get equal attention), and the curriculum administrators. This one-on-one time is tailored to the interests of the VIP, and by the time we're done, we've created a sense of rapport and begun to build bridges of understanding. We plan it to be two-way informative and cordial.

When we meet with a board member or administrator, we tell our heartfelt personal stories, point out program successes, and talk about our hopes and dreams (such as our desire to expand the program to more students and to continue into middle school). We also talk about issues (theirs and ours), but we never confront, never argue, never become defensive, never demand an immediate fix. Our attitude is always that they (the decision-makers) and we (the immersion community) are all on the same team: we all want academic success for kids.

It is not by chance that we weave educational tidbits into our seemingly casual chat. For example, we talk about "Second Grade Panic" as a time when some parents worry their English -or Spanish- speaking children will never learn to read in English; in other words, we acknowledge some nervousness, and then we come back with reassurance that, indeed, in third grade these children do start learning to read in English; that English literacy comes along readily because the students are already literate in Spanish and just need to transfer literacy skills from Spanish to English, not begin all over again.

This form of education works great if one parent tells her personal story, another parent adds a comment, and several others nod as if to say, "We've been there too." You don't have to orchestrate the "echoes," but you do have to make sure someone is primed to casually introduce important topics whenever the conversation lends itself.

Communicate frequently with decision-makers and work on good PR for your program.

It takes six or seven years for a new immersion program to prove itself. While you're waiting, celebrate your program's existence. Hold a cultural event and invite the VIPs (give them a free ticket). Invite them to visit your classrooms and watch your kids perform at school events. Publish a newsletter a few times a year - nominally for immersion parents, but make sure it will inform outsiders. If there's a favorable article about your program in the local newspaper, send a copy to the decision-makers. Whenever there's cheery news, drop them a note - for example, whenever we win a grant for Spanish library books, we let our assistant superintendent know, and he spreads the news.

Make sure the tone of all your good news messages conveys a sense of celebration, and not bragging or gloating. After all, you want the VIPs to celebrate with you and to take pride in nurturing such a successful educational program!

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