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Article updated: 7/3/2013 4:10 PM

Dist. 15 touts progress among English-language learners

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Palatine Township Elementary District 15 officials have reason to believe their approach to English-language learners is working.

A recent report shows more students are eligible to "exit" their second-language program in 2013 compared to the previous two years.

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The exit criteria is set by the Illinois State Board of Education, which requires certain composite and literacy scores on the ACCESS test, which measures English language proficiency.

The biggest strides came among third-graders. Nearly 60 percent of the students scored high enough to exit the program, compared to about 48 percent last year and 45 percent in 2011.

"We were just thrilled," Assistant Superintendent Mary Zarr said.

The scores don't necessarily mean students are performing at their grade level, but officials said the increasingly high rate of exits at grades three and four indicate they're transitioning successfully to the mainstream. Many may need continued support in literacy and other areas.

In addition to seeing the biggest gains, the third-graders also outperformed -- by a wide margin -- every other grade in terms of the percentage of students who score high enough to exit the second-language program.

Cheryl Wolfel, District 15's director of Second Language Services, attributed the performance to third grade being a transition year for many of the second-language students. It's the first time they've left a self-contained bilingual classroom and entered a regular education classroom with support.

Many of the second-language learners in higher grade levels are new to the country or their district, officials said, and not proficient enough to exit.

Zarr and Wolfel also pointed to some strong showings among second-language students in the MAP test, which is given in English and examines academic progress.

That was especially true with second-graders, who outscored every other grade. The test showed 30 percent performed at or above grade level in reading and 34 percent in math.

Most of the students in kindergarten through second grade are in bilingual classrooms and learning primarily in Spanish, so administrators say the higher test scores support their belief that English literacy is best attained by first strengthening literacy in a student's native language.

"This just proves our research that says children transfer skills," Wolfel said.

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