Equal Educational Opportunity for Hispanic Students in the Oklahoma City Public Schools

Chapter 2

Academic Perspective

Dr. Herman Curiel, associate professor, School of Social Work, University of Oklahoma, provided the Advisory Committee some information on the educational and social needs of Hispanics in Oklahoma. As background, he noted that the Oklahoma City public schools have a diverse minority student population, which is 40 percent African American, 35 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic, 4 percent American Indian, and 3 percent Asian.[1] In 1997, 74 percent of the district’s students were eligible for either free or reduced price lunch. Of the 6,621 Hispanics enrolled, 4,324 were eligible for free lunch. Also in the same year, 5,739 students were enrolled in special education and 1,786 student dropouts were recorded for the district.[2]

The OCPS, which serves the inner city and other needy areas, is 1 of 17 school districts in the Greater Oklahoma City area.[3] The ethnic imbalance of the student population does not reflect the city’s population. For example, Oklahoma City is 16 percent African American and around 4 or 5 percent Hispanic.[4]

Dr. Curiel said that the school district has experienced a tremendous enrollment growth of limited-English-proficient (LEP) students. He reported that in the 1997–98 academic year 6,542 students were identified as LEP. For a majority of these children, the home language was Spanish.[5] 

Dr. Curiel said 540 Hispanic students were enrolled in special education classes.[6] He described the Even Start Family Literacy program, which is designed to provide concurrent childhood, adult, and parent education to its participants. It targets low-income families with limited formal education.[7] Most of the families who participate in Even Start are of Hispanic background. The goal of the program was to serve 120 families. However, Dr. Curiel recommended that the school district expand its transitional bilingual education program to grades two and three at the current Even Start sites, and offer the same program at schools where there is a concentration of LEP students.[8] 

Dr. Curiel stated that bilingual education is often misunderstood by the general public, legislators, and even some educators. It is a teaching method using both English and a student’s native language and is particularly designed for non-English-speaking students.[9] He further said:

Critics view time spent becoming literate in the child’s major language as time lost, because they’re not learning English. The assumption is that all children can progress at the same rate, regardless of ability to comprehend instruction. And bilingual education is designed for those students who commence schools as non-English speakers. The initial goal is for the children to learn to read and write what they already speak. So it’s from a position of strength: you teach them what they already know. And once the children have received some level of native language literacy, children are introduced to English.[10] 

According to Dr. Curiel’s research findings on the effects of bilingual background education and its relationship to dropout rates in Houston, Texas, many children who do not have the benefit of bilingual education, who are poor, and of Mexican heritage had to repeat school grades.[11] His research further indicated that children who were in bilingual education classes in the early years did well in high school compared with those without the bilingual educational experience, who more frequently became school dropouts.[12] 

Dr. April Haulman, a professor in curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Oklahoma, provided the Advisory Committee with information on State testing regulations and exemption from testing regulations. She began by saying that there is a requirement for achievement testing in grades 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11.[13] However, there was an acknowledged need to exempt students receiving special education. Dr. Haulman said:

It also was believed by advocates for language minority students at that time that exemptions should also be extended to protect the limited- and non-English-proficient students from being assessed with inappropriate instruments, namely tests standardized and normed on English-speaking students.[14]

Dr. Haulman told the Committee that limited English proficient refers to:

individuals who were not born in the U.S. or whose native language is a language other than English, individuals who come from environments where language other than English is dominant. . . . where language other than English has had a significant impact on their level of English language proficiency and who, by reason thereof, has sufficient difficulty reading, writing, and understanding the English language to deny such individuals the opportunity to learn successfully in classrooms where the language of instruction is English or to participate fully in society.[15]

Students in local school districts in Oklahoma may be exempted from the State school testing program during their first 3 years of enrollment if the following conditions have been met:

  1. For every LEP student exempted, the local district must have on file verification that the student is receiving special instruction designed for a specific purpose of improving the LEP student’s English proficiency.

  2. The local school district must have on file record of having notified the LEP student’s parents or legal guardians of the option of requesting that their child be exempted from participating in the testing program.[16]

Dr. Haulman stated that the 3-year timeframe for test exemptions was based on research findings on how long it takes to learn communication skills.[17] However, she noted: 

These tests grossly and unfairly underestimate the LEP student’s cognitive functioning and achievement in content areas. A non-English-proficient, limited-English-proficient student will receive a low score on these tests, not because they do not know some of the concepts or information on the test but because they do not understand the language of the test and test instructions. The test about science concepts should measure science concepts. For LEP students, it measures the student’s ability to read the question in English. This process can be a very humiliating, painful, and demoralizing situation for the student, resulting in low self-esteem and possibly lowered self-expectations. Using these types of tests unfairly underestimates a student’s progress from one year to the next. Typically, LEP students assessed in English are 25 to 30 percentile ranks behind their English-speaking peers, constituting about two and a half to three grade levels.

In order to close this achievement gap as measured by the English instruments, LEP students must out-perform their English-speaking peers in progress over the course of several years. The LEP student who enters schools 3 years behind in English when measured through these tests must make 15 years of progress; the normal 12 years of progress plus 3 years of catch-up achievement during the 12 years of schooling, whereas English-speaking students are making 12 years’ progress in 12 years of schooling. The test scores for LEP students from one year to the next shows students making a year’s worth of progress as measured by a test, but those results would still be way behind their English-speaking peers. Teachers, on the basis of this, may actually lower their estimation and expectations for LEP students because of these low scores and thus not provide the same challenging content-area instructions to LEP students.[18] 

Dr. Haulman said that achievement tests are often used as high stakes decisionmaking guides. High stakes refers to the practice of using test results for such purposes as grade level retention or advancement.[19] When test results are used for assessing the quality or the performance of a school district, it sometimes puts pressure on students, teachers, and administrators. Ultimately, the concern is the resulting educational damage to the LEP student’s morale and self-image.[20]

Dr. Haulman suggested that schools can be overly sensitive to being labeled at-risk for low-achievement performance and may actually encourage parents to sign waivers for testing when they are not warranted if they believe that students will not perform at the standard levels.[21] 

Oklahoma school officials were concerned that a 3-year exemption would not be enough for students to make adequate progress in their English proficiency. This fear was based on research findings indicating that for LEP children, in addition to learning basic interpersonal communication skills, it may take 5 to 10 years to develop the cognitive academic language proficiency equivalent of their English-speaking peers.[22]

Dr. Haulman also mentioned that the funding formula for the school districts offered by the State Department of Education provided supplemental money based on the number of limited-English-proficient students who are reported annually to the State.[23] She was very concerned about the lack of a tracking system for funds set aside to provide additional services for the LEP student. She has advocated for better management of LEP-targeted funds and better assessment of proficiency in language acquisition and curriculum content in the support program for LEP students.[24]

Dr. Haulman said the test exemption was “never intended to release teachers and schools of any accountability for providing English language development, as well as access to full curriculum.”[25]

Dr. Haulman also pointed out: 

And there is some benefit to giving these types of tests for students that are beginning to make progress, probably not in the early stages of no English proficiency, but as they begin to acquire more and more English proficiency, they still may be identified as limited English proficient and may not be achieving at the norms of their English-speaking peers. There could be some benefit for the teachers and educational planners and for parents to gauge how quickly they are approaching those norms. So there are some advantages to giving them the test. And when the schools are reluctant to give them the test because those figures, then, would be counted against them if they are not achieving at the norm levels for the rest of the school, they are not being held accountable, often, for the kind of educational programming they can offer the student.[26] 

When asked about the pushout and dropout rates for LEP students, Dr. Haulman noted: 

But I know one of the things that you often hear when you hear bilingual education being under fire like in States like California, you hear that all this money that the United States has put into bilingual education after all these years, we still have one of the highest dropout rates among our limited English proficient. And why is it? Because it’s failed.

Well, the truth of the matter is that good quality bilingual instruction has never been offered to everybody anyway. And those high dropout rates are still occurring among the students that are not receiving quality education. This is one thing that the research has found: students that are receiving native language support longer, even if they are in the mainstream classes where all the instruction is English but they receive native language support and there is still communication in the native language of the home with parent, then kids are persisting in their education longer.

Parents are staying involved longer in education. Most parent involvement drops out considerably after elementary school anyway. But parents will drop out after the first 2 years if there’s nobody to talk to at school. If the teacher doesn’t speak their language and there’s nobody there to translate, the parents will withdraw immediately. 

And when you compound that with the fact that many of our limited-English-proficient parents are coming with a different kind of cultural expectation to the school, they’re not as likely to challenge authority or to assert that their children’s rights are not being met, or needs are not being met, because from different cultural perspectives, teachers are held in higher esteem than they are in our society, unfortunately. 

But the offshoot of that is that parents often will not challenge, even if there is someone there to translate, because culturally, they have a different perspective.

It is so critical that the teachers make an effort to encourage and involve parents and show them how they can be involved both at the classroom level and at the building level so that they not only understand their rights as parents, but they understand how they can enrich their children’s experiences at home. Because when that bond is strong between the home and the school and the child, the children will persist in school longer.[27] 

[1] Herman Curiel, Statement before the Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum, Oklahoma City, OK, Sept. 29, 1998, Transcript, p. 12 (hereafter cited as Transcript).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 12–13.

[4] Ibid., p. 13.

[5] Ibid., pp. 13–14. An Oklahoma City Public Schools evaluation report to U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Jan. 22, 1998, noted that 5,485, or 85 percent, of LEP students were Spanish speaking.

[6] Herman Curiel, Transcript, pp. 13–14. 

[7] Ibid., p. 15.

[8] Ibid., pp. 15–16.

[9] Ibid., p. 16.

[10] Ibid., pp. 16–17.

[11] Ibid., p. 17.

[12] Ibid., p. 20.

[13] April Haulman, Transcript, p. 78.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., p. 79.

[16] Ibid., p. 80.

[17] Ibid., pp. 81–82.

[18] Ibid., pp. 81–83.

[19] Ibid., p. 83.

[20] Ibid., pp. 83–84.

[21] Ibid., p. 84.

[22] Ibid., p. 81.

[23] Ibid., pp. 85–86.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., p. 84.

[26] Ibid., p. 85.

[27] Ibid., pp. 100–01.