Language barrier troubles schools

Mike Linn

Standardized tests revealed what Portales School Superintendent Jim Holloway already knew, that language and socioeconomic factors are some of the toughest challenges Portales educators face.
Recently released state ratings for Portales schools show that Hispanics and students who qualified for free or reduced lunches scored lower than the rest of their classmates on a whole.
Moreover, special education students and students most challenged with the English language (ELL students) at Valencia Elementary failed to meet state testing standards in 14 out of the 15 categories.
Those categories include, language, math, science, reading and social studies.
Of the eight Portales schools tested, six met the state’s standards while Valencia (fourth and fifth grades) and Broad Horizons, an alternative school, fell into the state’s probationary status.
“I’m disappointed, but not alarmed…” Superintendent Jim Holloway said Wednesday. “A few areas need to be addressed, but overall we met standards and I’m pleased with that.”
“We don’t run a school to improve test scores; we want to run a school to improve education — the test scores will follow.”
At Broad Horizons, only 50 percent of the students took the tests, hardly a good representation, Holloway added.
Regarding all schools, Holloway said he understands that language and socioeconomic barriers affect education.
Some students with socioeconomic barriers, for example, don’t believe what an education can do for them, Holloway said. And Holloway explained that a teacher’s job is to not only teach, but help students understand the possibilities education provides.
Language barriers also affects test scores: A stipulation in the No Child Left Behind Act requires that students who speak Spanish as a first language take standardized tests in English after three years in the American public school system.
The test scores for ELL students at Valencia failed to meet state standards in all five categories.
David VanWettering, the principal of Valencia, said he will make no excuses for below average tests scores. He said his staff has various plans to bring the school back to state standards.
“Our kids under performed, and for whatever reason we are going to have to change things at Valencia so that they don’t under perform anymore,” VanWettering said. “Looking at the scores it’s obvious that’s not where we want our kids to be. We have a very solid action plan to help students do better.”
VanWettering noted that school officials will step up its tutoring process in areas of underachievement.
But overall, Holloway was pleased with school ratings, especially Portales Junior High School and Portales High School. Both schools met standards on the annually-administered tests.
Students at PJHS exceeded standards or scored exemplary in a little over 42 percent of the categories. And at PHS, students scored exemplary in more than 22 percent of the testing brackets.
The scores came from the California Achievement Test, a measuring stick Holloway questioned because of differing state standards.
In some instances, for example, Portales students had not yet studied material on the CAT tests, Holloway said.
“These standards are not compared against Albuquerque and Gallup, but against Buffalo, New York and San Diego (among the rest of the country),” Holloway said. “While the test may meet norms for California, it may not meet norms for New Mexico.”
Holloway noted that next year all students will also take the New Mexico Criteria Reference Test, a test specific to New Mexico.
Holloway hopes the New Mexico standard test will bridge education and the state’s culture and education standards.
“It’s up to us to educate the students,” Holloway said. “But it’s also up to us to help students understand what education can do for them.”