Guest commentary: Behind Basalt Elementary’s test scores
The Aspen Times recently reported the preliminary results of this year’s third-grade TCAP standardized reading tests. Looking solely at this score, it appears that Basalt Elementary School is improving proficiency. There are other numbers that were not included in the story, and this omission creates a false impression of performance at the school.
As in past years, Basalt Elementary School has given the TCAP test in Spanish to students who aren’t yet proficient in English. State law allows them to do this if students have been in a “bilingual” program. This Spanish version of the TCAP is called the Lectura test. Lectura results are not included in the school’s TCAP score, thus skewing the results. This is not insignificant. This year, 22 third-graders, about 36 percent of the Latinos in that grade, took the Lectura. A Basalt Elementary School teacher, discouraged by the lack of score transparency, told me, “If you hold back enough kids, of course the scores will go up!” I have discussed this issue with the Roaring Fork School District superintendent and assistant superintendent; neither of them expressed an interest in delving into the true level of proficiency at the school.
Why does Basalt Elementary School need to test so many students in Spanish? The school has instructional policies for their youngest Latino students that defy common sense and educational best practices. For years, the school has placed Latino students in a segregated Spanish literacy and math program. As a result, Latino kindergartners and first-graders are separated from their Anglo classmates for 71 percent to 85 percent of their instructional day.
The school mentions in the kindergarten registration packet that students are taught literacy in their “primary language first and in their new language second.” Latino parents are given one option: a check box that says, “Yes, I would like my child in a dual-language bilingual classroom.” There is not a check box for Latino parents who wish for their children to receive an English immersion education . Seventy-eight percent of the Latino kindergartners were placed in the segregated Spanish literacy and math program in 2011 (the last year I was able to get any data from the school). The kindergarten packet also states, “Our results show that our students meet or exceed their peers in academic learning who are not part of the bilingual program.” I attended four years of monthly Basalt Elementary School community accountability meetings to try to get answers about instructional policies at the school. The principal refused my numerous written requests to bring data to the accountability meetings that would prove the school’s instructional efficacy claims. I have requested information on the specific, results-proven program that Basalt Elementary School bases their literacy instruction on, and the principal refused to divulge that, as well.
The kindergarten packet states that the Basalt Elementary School program is validated by Thomas & Collier research that shows “language minority students do better academically when their native language is supported and developed.” Here again, a quote guilty of a sin of omission. Thomas & Collier actually says that children who receive cognitively complex English and Spanish instruction, all the way through at least fifth or sixth grade, are the only students who continue to show long-term gains. The Basalt school program goes only through fourth grade, therefore the school administration’s claim that its instruction is based upon Thomas & Collier research is disingenuous at best. Thomas & Collier also said, “When English-language learners initially attend segregated, remedial programs, these students do not close the achievement gap after reclassification and placement in the English mainstream. Instead, they maintain or widen the gap in later years.” This kind of segregated program is specifically what Basalt Elementary School has mandated for years. Longitudinal data shows that less than 52 percent of Basalt High School Latino students are proficient in reading.
Third-grade reading level is a significant predictor of eighth-grade reading level and ninth-grade course performance. If the school squanders the critical first two years of instruction teaching Latino kids Spanish phonics and vowel sounds that are very different from English literacy building blocks, how can these children succeed in mastering English literacy? The state has adopted the Read Act, which states that children who are not reading English proficiently by third grade will be encouraged to repeat that grade. If Basalt Elementary School is preventing young Latino students from receiving English literacy and prevents them from hearing English spoken for most of the school day, how can we expect these students to pass English-literacy tests by third grade? In addition, it should be noted that repeating third-grade costs taxpayers an extra $7,000 to $11,000 per student.
It is widely known that economically disadvantaged children, of all ethnicities, suffer from a “poverty of vocabulary.” Using this research, we can infer that many lower-income Latino kids enter school with impoverished 3,000-word Spanish vocabularies, while many of their Anglo peers enter with 20,000-word English vocabularies. If Latino children are already at a significant vocabulary disadvantage, it seems bizarre that Basalt Elementary School would purposely exacerbate this problem with segregated instruction.
I formed a community conversation group three years ago to discuss instruction at the school. At the end of the 2011 school year, one of our Latino moms called and polled half of the Latino kindergarten parents. Eighty-nine percent of these parents did not know if their child was receiving their literacy block in English or Spanish. Ninety-four percent of these parents stated that they wanted their children to get their literacy instruction in English. Sixty-one percent of the parents said that no one at the school had told them that they could choose literacy instruction in either English or Spanish.
The school is disregarding the wishes of Latino parents. When I asked the principal to create a flier to better explain these choices to Latino parents, she refused.
I have tried to get the superintendent, the assistant superintendent and school board members to look into the harmful, segregated instruction at Basalt Elementary School for several years. I have exhausted all the proper channels to have the school’s programs examined more closely. There has been no change at Basalt Elementary School. I am convinced that our community does not want tax dollars wasted on a socially and financially reckless program like this.
Segregated instruction isn’t good for Latino or Anglo children, and it isn’t good for our community as a whole. The school district leadership must examine this problem immediately. Next school year, all children at Basalt Elementary School should have equal access to the English language instruction that determines their success in school and in their adult lives.
Stacey Craft lives in Basalt.
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