Texas Educators Worried Over Weak English Skills

A new study finds that the proportion of students with limited English language skills has grown in Texas. The study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin discovered a worrying trend that children in state are segregated by language, according to Chris Tomlinson of The Associated Press. The study shows that these children with limited language skills attend the state's most segregated schools, where most of their classmates are minorities and their districts are among the most impoverished.

Texas Education Agency statistics shows that the percentage of English language learners has grown from 13% in 2001 to 16.2% in 2012, totaling about 838,000 kids. The agency also reports that the number of economically disadvantaged students has risen from 50% in 2001 to about 60% in 2012, totaling 3 million children in Texas public schools. Further, the agency reports that gifted and talented programs dropped from 8.2% in 2001 to 7.6% in 2012.

Also, the study found that minorities, English language learners and poorer children have become concentrated into low-performing schools and districts, decreasing their chances to overcome these impediments. English language learners are the majority of students in two-thirds of the schools that are intensely impoverished.

"Our research revealed that schools where students are segregated by race/ethnicity, (socio-economic status) and language are overwhelmingly rated as low-performing," said Julian Vasquez Heilig, associate professor in the College of Education. Those schools also are staffed with some of the lowest-skilled teachers and turnover tends to be high, he added.

In the past, the schools and districts used a rating system that was based "solely on how well the children scored on standardized tests." Under this system, if a school or district failed to meet state expectations after three years, parents could pull their kids out and the state could shut the schools down. In 2012, Education Commissioner Michael Williams, after teacher complaints, launched a new school accountability system and released new school ratings. Under the new system, schools either meet or fail to meet standards, while some can earn distinctions for math and English.

The biggest innovation, though, is that the system considers how much the students improve on standardized tests, not just how high they score. That means school districts with lots of disadvantaged kids can still score well if they can help their poor performers quickly catch up. Williams hopes to reward educators who find ways to help disadvantaged kids.

In addition, Texas has dropped to 49th in the nation in per pupil spending. Lawmakers have restored some of the budget cuts to Texas public schools this year, but it will still be less per capita than five years ago.

The new school accountability system will give credit to schools who improve student performance, but that leaves teachers and parents to figure out how best to help Texas' evolving student population.

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