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Tests Challenge ESL Students: Schools Offer Programs to Help Prepare Pupils With Language Barriers

May 11, 2007

By Jason M. Rodriguez, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

May 11–ASH, N.C. — Any teacher can attest to the difficulty some students have with end-of-grade tests — which happen this month for Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick counties.

The testing is key because results help federal and state education officials monitor progress. They also affect staff financial-incentive awards and can even prevent students from graduating.

West Brunswick (N.C.) High School Spanish teacher Ronda Hatcher knows the additional challenges that face students who speak and write English as a second language, and that’s why she helped create a program this year in which her students tutor third-graders at Waccamaw Elementary School in Ash, N.C., in preparation for end-of-grade testing.

“My students help them with key vocabulary words, they listen to them read, they help with reading comprehension, and they tutor them in math,” Hatcher said. “My kids absolutely love it. We have a couple of kids going into the teaching field, so this helps them with that, as well. Those third-graders help my students with pronunciation, and I think it helps with community support. These kids really feel they are a part of the community when they have someone they can talk to in the language that’s used at home.”

Though Horry and Georgetown districts do not offer the same program, they do allocate more time for second-language teachers to spend with their students prior to all major tests.

Federal law allows ESL students to skip end-of-grade testing — known in South Carolina as end-of-course testing — for the first two years they are in the country.

After that, if more than 40 students represent a subgroup, such as Japanese or Mexican, then their test results are calculated in the school’s annual yearly progress measured by No Child Left Behind, a 2002 federal program that holds school systems accountable for their students’ progress.

The S.C. foreign-born population grew by 48 percent from 2000 to 2005 — the largest foreign-born growth in the nation — according to U.S. Census figures released in August. North Carolina’s foreign-born population grew by 32 percent during that same time, the statistics show.

Horry County

The Horry County School District has about 1,700 English Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, students among its more than 36,000 students, said Carolyn Chestnut, chief officer of instruction support services for Horry County schools.

“That’s a growing population in our district right now,” she said. “Spanish isn’t the only language. I’ve heard [ESOL learning specialist Melissa Rutenburg] say we’ve seen a lot of Albanian recently … and Russian.”

Chestnut said the district’s 32 ESOL teachers build testing preparation into their instruction of these students.

The Myrtle Beach and Socastee areas have grown in their foreign-language populations, Chestnut said, and added that Myrtle Beach Primary School alone has students that speak more than 10 different languages.

South Carolina allows limited-English students to use word-for-word bilingual dictionaries, take the tests in a small group or as an individual, take additional time and have the math, physical science and history portions read to them, according to the S.C. Department of Education’s Web site.

Georgetown County

Georgetown County School District classifies 197 of its nearly 10,000 students as ESOL said Sandi Baker, coordinator of ESOL, English Language Arts and Foreign Language.

Those students, who speak 10 languages, are given special attention preceding major tests by the six certified ESOL teachers the district employs.

Baker said students who enter school in the younger grades tend to become adapted to English better than those who enter school in middle and high schools, because some were not required to go to school in their home country.

“It’s extremely difficult,” she said of foreign-language students taking required tests. “Our teachers try to make sure their accommodations are met. Sometimes they read the test to them, or at least the math part, and sometimes they’re given extra time to finish the test.”

Brunswick County

Of Brunswick County Schools’ more than 11,100 students, 575 are ESL students — up from 459 last year and 325 the year before, said Ellen Milligan, director of middle schools and English as a Second Language.

“I can imagine that with just a limited amount of time speaking English that it would be difficult for them to take these tests,” she said. “We really want to access all of the resources we can.”

Milligan said Brunswick County Schools has students who speak Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Korean and Russian, among other languages.

The school system provides dictionaries and electronic translators for those who speak a language that is not spoken by enough students to warrant a specific ESL instructor.

ESL students are able to use those resources on tests if the school system determines that the student needs it, she said.

Milligan said the tutoring program at Waccamaw Elementary, which is also going on between South Brunswick High School and Southport Elementary, began later this year than school officials had hoped.

The high schoolers began tutoring the third-graders May 1 and will help them twice a week until May 17, just days before the end-of-grade tests.

Though coaching the language to the test is helpful, educators are quick to say that year-round efforts are needed to help all students pass end-of-course testing.

That’s why Milligan said she hopes a once-a-week program to teach parents English, which began this year at Jessie Mae Monroe Elementary School, will expand to more frequent meetings and to other schools.

“If we could reach the parents, then it would be better for the students,” she said.

Milligan said the new programs’ effectiveness will not be measured until next year.

“We’re hoping to get these test results back and see how they did with this help and compare that to how well these students did last year,” she said.

“We’ll be looking for the growth and hoping this will be a part in what created that growth.”

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At a glance

2007 school testing schedules for Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick counties:

Horry County Schools

PACT — May 7-18

End of course — May 29-June 7

Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate — May 7-11 and May 14-18

Brunswick County, N.C.

End of grade — May 22-25

Georgetown County

PACT — May 15-18 and May 21-22

End of course — May 24-25

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 910-754-9868 or jrodriguez@thesunnews.com [mailto:jrodriguez@thesunnews.com].

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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