Immigrant students, once they learn English, outperformed native English speakers on half the exams in Utah's largest standardized test.

The data, extracted from 2001 core curriculum test results released last week, could strengthen the case for infusing more money into English as a second language programs, which federal civil rights investigators have found seriously lacking in some school districts.

"This early data begin to dispel the previously held notion and concern that limited English proficient students are a liability in the statewide assessments . . . and the myth that being bilingual is a liability with an English-speaking curriculum," state educational equity director Richard Gomez said.

Utah first- through 12th-graders were required to take the core curriculum test for the first time last spring as part of the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, a series of tests designed to hold schools accountable for student achievement.

Scores, available online at www.usoe.k12.ut.us/eval/results/, are broken down for a number of factors and categories.

Low-income students' scores lag behind their peers by at least 5 and as many as 11 percentage points in every test. Students of color also trailed white student scores by anywhere from 2.5 to 15 percentage points, with the widest gaps in junior high and high school science. Girls outperformed boys in language, but trailed in math and science exams.

Such patterns are apparent in standardized tests across the country, and the state is working to narrow the gaps.

But when English proficiency is considered the pattern takes a surprising turn.

Students with limited English proficiency, or LEP, don't score as high as native English speakers. But those categorized as "Former LEP," meaning they have received LEP services as required under federal law and now attend their classes without special help, outperformed native English speakers in 11 of 23 published test results.

In third-grade language arts, former LEP students correctly answered an average 83.1 percent of the test questions. Native English speakers scored 82.4 percent.

In seventh-grade math, former LEP students scored 63.4 percent; native English speakers scored 56.1 percent.

In sixth-grade science, former LEP students scored 73.2 percent; native English speakers, 70.5 percent.

Results for junior high and high school language arts tests were not published because standards have not been set.

State testing coordinator Barbara Lawrence was upbeat but cautious in her assessment of the results.

She noted that only between 132 and 410 former LEP students took each test, a relatively small and less statistically reliable number. By comparison, between 10,500 and 32,500 native English-speaking students took each test. Lawrence also is unsure if school districts are keeping updated information on LEP students.

Nevertheless, Lawrence called the results "excellent news, an indication that good things are happening for those students."

While some officials seemed surprised by the data, LEP specialists say the results replicate national research on bilingual students.

"When you have two languages, you have two avenues to solve a problem," said Nancy Giraldo, state alternative language services program specialist. "You have more capabilities for problem solving, and you think quicker."

Addressing needs of LEP students, however, has been problematic in Utah.

Federal law requires schools to help students learning English as a second language progress in all subjects, not just English.

But the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, as part of random reviews or complaint investigations, in recent years found 10 Utah school districts were violating LEP students' civil rights. Those districts, including Jordan, Salt Lake City, Granite, Davis, Cache, Washington and San Juan, are in various stages of compliance.

The state spends $3.5 million on programs for more than 40,000 LEP students. But advocates say that even with another $3 million in federal money available to help immigrants and refugees, state funding falls short.

Davis School District, for instance, is running about $500,000 in the red paying for teachers' ESL-endorsement classes.

An English Language Learners task force, set up by the 2001 Legislature, recommends the state spend another $6 million to set a plan to address student needs and train teachers in the basics of teaching LEP children.

Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairwoman Marda Dillree, R-Farmington, is interested in the data. But she extends no promises when the state is facing a projected $202.5 million revenue shortfall this budget year.

"It definitely shows that if (ESL students) are getting the help they need, and they're able to get it young enough, it looks like they're not only comparable, but doing better" than other students, she said. "But I don't know if that's going to play as critical a role as the lack of money."

Still, hope springs eternal for the task force, including member Sandra Buendia, alternative language services coordinator for Salt Lake City School District.

"We'd hope all students perform well. That would be the major goal," she said. "But if they invest more money in the school system and the programs, we're going to see an increase in performance levels of all students."


Keeping track

Beginning in Monday's Education section and continuing in coming weeks, the Deseret News will zero in on results in state core curriculum and the Stanford Achievement Tests. Parents can use this information to see how their schools, and their children, are doing.


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com