Measuring the success of Utah’s dual immersion program

It’s a question I hear over and over again from parents: How do I know if my child is excelling academically?

The battery of tests our kids take suggests schools are constantly probing the same question. But do those tests apply to dual immersion students?

Utah parents were promised two things when they enrolled their children in dual immersion: that their kids would become fluent and literate in a second language, and that they would suffer no setbacks in reading, writing, math, science or social studies. 

State officials have developed specialized tools to gauge how much Mandarin, Spanish, French or Portuguese students are acquiring. One of the measures, “summative” assessments of their listening, speaking and writing abilities will be given this spring for the first time to all immersion third and fourth graders. Parents will get results next fall. More on that later…..

But conventional year-end tests show that for several years running, Utah has come through on its second promise that no academic harm would come to immersion students. Data show Utah’s immersion students perform as good as, or better than, their non-immersion peers on state reading and math assessments, said Utah World Languages Specialist Gregg Roberts. 

This suggests students are absorbing some second language, since up until 3rd grade math is predominantly taught in that language, notes Roberts. It also squares with the experience of other states and other countries, including the birthplace of modern immersion, Canada.

According to the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition:
“Immersion students met or exceeded English program students’ performance in mathematics and science, and province-wide assessments in three Canadian provinces found that at grades 6, 8, and 10, respectively, immersion students did as well as or achieved at a significantly higher level than those in the regular program. (Bournot-Trites & Tellowitz, 2002; British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2000; Dube & MacFarlane, 1999; New Brunswick Department of Education, 2000; Turnbull, Hart & Lapkin, 2000.)”

How is this possible, you ask? Scientists exploring the benefits of bilingualism offering one explanation – being bilingual boosts your brain, they say. Studies suggest being bilingual enhances cognitive abilities and may even help stave off dementia, reports The New York Times.

Of course, such research is still in its infancy; there is no direct proof that being bilingual makes you smarter. Could it be that kids who enroll in immersion programs tend to be overachievers from upwardly mobile families who start the school year already well ahead of their peers? 

Portland is testing that assumption by comparing year-end scores of students who won the immersion lottery to those who tried enrolling but lost the lottery, said Roberts. A Utah-commissioned study by the Educational Policy Center at the University of Utah pursues the same question from a different angle.

Researchers compared year-end reading and math scores of immersion students at 17 Utah schools to non-immersion students. To make sure they were comparing apples and apples, they weighted students’ scores differently based on a student’s socioeconomic or non-English-speaking status, explained Roberts. They found immersion students on average scored 5 points higher on English Language Arts CRT’s and 4 points higher on math CRT’s. In addition, they were more likely to be reading on grade level and were less likely to be chronically absent than traditional students.

“Keep in mind the immersion kids are also going up against all the gifted and talented programs in the state,” said Roberts, noting that immersion programs accept kids of all abilities.

Now, back to the language assessments. Are you still with me? 

By now most parents have probably seen the Student Proficiency Reports that immersion teachers produce showing whether students are making adequate progress in their world language. Next fall you’ll also receive results from the first round of AAPPL tests.  “Language is a skill, a skill that can be demonstrated and tested,” said Roberts.

Computerized, role-playing assessments developed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the AAPPL tests are conversational and interactive. Students sit at a computer wearing special headsets and are prompted to answer questions by a videotaped person speaking Chinese, Spanish, French or Portuguese. Students responses are recorded and sent to ACTFL for scoring.

Here’s a video showing how it works.

Immersion students will take these tests every year starting in the 3rd grade. Testing for the first few years will alternate between measuring interpersonal listening and speaking skills versus their presentational writing skills. In latter years, tests will be added to measure interpretive listening and reading, culminating in 9th grade with the College AP exam. If they pass, students will be able to take college-level courses in high school.  Here’s a spreadsheet that breaks it down into more detail with links for more information.

These tests cost money, and show just how much the state has invested in this program and wants it to succeed. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the results!

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