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Ebonics Flunks a Test 

Wednesday, Jul 22 1998
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The L. A. Unified school district's controversial "Ebonics" curriculum for black students has fared poorly in a preliminary evaluation, according to data obtained by the Weekly. Results of the evaluation, which were initially suppressed by Ebonics proponents within the district, indicate that a sample of students actually regressed in language skills after formal exposure to classroom Ebonics, or "black English." In the program, teachers are trained to treat Ebonics as a legitimate dialect, while also helping their students learn mainstream English.

Ebonics commanded a national spotlight in 1996 when some respected linguists as well as activists in Oakland declared it a language separate and apart from mainstream English, and the first language of many African-American students. The move was, in part, an attempt to make underachieving black Oakland school-district students eligible for a share of bilingual-education funds.

The controversy quickly spread to Los Angeles, where school-board members engaged in heated debate over the future of the district's two existing black-English programs. The issue was supposed to be settled on the merits, with administrators reporting back to the school board by May 1997 on whether or not the programs were working. But no report has been forthcoming, despite the fact that administrators commissioned, paid for and actually received an evaluation.

Although not all students in the programs were tested, the findings are clearly cause for concern among the administrators who run them. In the assessment, students answered questions testing their ability to differentiate between mainstream and black English. Students were tested twice, once at the start of the school year and once near the end. On the written part of the exam, 65 percent of students performed worse at translating tasks after going through the programs. The test was taken by third-, fourth- and fifth-grade classes at 11 of the programs' 31 schools. Results on a separate oral test, taken by fewer students, were somewhat better; only 16 percent of these students showed declining scores on this measure. (Summary results describing how many students scored the same or better were not available.)

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The second test was completed in May '97, and an outside evaluator had submitted a report to district staff by October '97. To this day, however, the findings have not been released, even to the school board.

Yet no such caution was exercised when the results seemed favorable to the programs. Conclusions from an earlier portion of the same evaluation were proudly proclaimed in a public school-board meeting by program director Noma LeMoine. That portion, completed in the summer of 1996, focused on how well teachers absorb her program's training methods. In the largely subjective review, based on impressions rather than test scores, teachers experienced "dramatic attitude changes toward Ebonics" and were said to be engaged in a "generally good use of the techniques suggested in the training sessions," said LeMoine in a January 1997 article in the L.A. Times.

But LeMoine was nowhere to be found after the less flattering preliminary evaluation of students. She failed repeatedly to return phone calls from the Weekly and even reportedly denied the existence of program evaluations to the district's own communications office. Longtime evaluations director Barbara Smith, who's been supportive of LeMoine's program, also denied at first that such a study existed, then flatly declared the $31,000 analysis to be "unofficial" and confidential, insisting that school-district attorneys had assured her that the material did not have to be released to the public. Higher-level officials finally disagreed with Smith, who retired this summer, and supplied the report to the Weekly.

Educators and activists have long been divided over whether elevating Ebonics to language status gives its speakers an added measure of self-confidence, as some claim, or actually does more to promote non-standard English. For all the furor, there's little controversial about the content or thrust of the school district's black-English programs.

Training efforts focus mainly on teachers, who are taught, among other things, to model good English for students who don't speak it. If one child says of another, "He be taking my pencil," the teacher can, for instance, reply, "He is taking your pencil?" The transition to standard English is supposed to be gradual, without any devaluing of the students' original dialect. Teachers also have access to stories with characters who use black English, which the students are sometimes asked to translate. Teachers are encouraged to talk about the cultural history and use of black English, and can attend periodic workshops, often held conference-style at downtown hotels and designed to improve language-teaching skills, as well as to better acquaint them with African and African-American culture.

Even in Oakland, the debate over Ebonics had less substance than advertised. Reports that textbooks would be written in Ebonics, and teachers required to teach in Ebonics, were unfounded. School administrators had no intention of supplanting mainstream English with Ebonics, and the Oakland school board never had any realistic chance of getting extra state bilingual-education money for Ebonics. Nor does Proposition 227, which bans most current bilingual-education programs, have any apparent effect on Ebonics, according to the state, because teachers do not rely on speaking Ebonics to instruct children.

The L.A. programs currently reach less than half of the school district's 94,000 black students. It's never been clear exactly how many students could benefit from the black-English programs - or, for that matter, how many participants actually were benefiting. Despite anecdotal success stories, students in LeMoine's 6-year-old program have fared just as poorly on standardized tests as their unaided counterparts at neighboring schools.

While Ebonics proponents such as school-board member Barbara Boudreaux have wanted to expand these programs, other officials have questioned whether, in view of their cost, they're worth doing at all. LeMoine's Language Development Program for African-American Students, the largest such program in the district, receives $1.7 million from the school district's state desegregation funds and $800,000 from the general fund. The older state-sponsored Proficiency in English Program receives $450,000 of general-fund money. Only LeMoine's program was involved in the evaluation.

During the most recent public furor over Ebonics, the LAUSD was also campaigning to pass a $2.4 billion bond issue. Because some school-board members worried that an acrimonious Ebonics debate would arouse voter ire, they were delighted to postpone the matter until after the election. But even after the successful campaign, Ebonics never returned to the front burner. Study author Patricia Snyder, a UCLA Ph.D., attributed the silence to the preliminary findings of her evaluation. "Barbara Smith said that if the results were satisfactory, she would release them," said Snyder.

Smith denied this, saying the number of students tested was too small to be reliable, and that the main purpose of the testing was to evaluate the test itself, which was being used for the first time. The study results surfaced only when Snyder complained to a number of district officials that the school system owed her additional money for assigned work performed over and above her original contract terms.

Ironically, Snyder characterizes herself as a strong believer in the black-English program. She said the poor scores may result from the low value students place on mainstream English. What the program calls "African-American language" is often the prestige language of the playground and the streets, said Snyder. "It's the way the cool kids talk. It's the way everyone wants to talk."

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