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Idaho Agency Urges Help for Students Who Struggle with English

BOISE, Idaho

The state should hire more bilingual teachers and allow students who are not proficient in English to skip standardized tests or take them in their native language, the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs says. The agency released a report last Thursday on how Idaho can better educate a growing population of Hispanic students and close the stark achievement gap.

Last year, Hispanic students scored significantly lower than non-Hispanic students in reading, math and language on statewide tests taken during the 2006-2007 school year, according to a study released by the commission.

For example, one in five Hispanic students in the 10th grade scored below proficiency levels in math on the Idaho Standardized Achievement Test, while only one in 12 non-Hispanic white students failed the test.

The test is used to determine whether schools are meeting federal benchmarks set by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Hispanic students made slight gains on the tests last year in third through eighth grades, as well as in 10th grade, when they have to pass the test to graduate, but they still scored lower than non-Hispanic students.

Latino students in the Jerome School District were particularly successful in bringing up their scores, but only after officials there spent several years targeting ways to help children who don’t speak English as a first language.

“We want to get closer to eliminating the gap,” said Juan Saldana, a community resource specialist at the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs. This is just the starting point.”

Hispanics accounted for 35,900 students in Idaho, making up about 13 percent of the 272,000 K-12 population during the 2007-2008 school year, according to the most recent enrollment figures available from the state Department of Education.

The commission recommends that school districts create individual education plans for students who are in bilingual programs and use state and federal funding to develop practices, based on research, aimed at the academic success of these children.

The agency also proposes that Idaho expand Head Start programs for Hispanic students and eliminate ineffective bilingual and English as a Second Language classes found in some school districts.

“There are some that are just not working at all, “Saldana said. “The students are still scoring really low.”

The state Department of Education has developed a program to recognize Limited English Proficiency, or LEP, classes where students are thriving and use them as a model for schools across the state, said spokeswoman Melissa McGrath.

The department is reviewing the recommendations by the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs, proposals which have also been submitted to state lawmakers for consideration.

“This is something we feel strongly about,” McGrath said. “We saw the gap get a little bit more narrow in the past yea, and we’re excited about that, but we still have a long ways to go.”

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