Good News: New York Students Are Finally Getting Better at Math

While New York students, after 37 years, might wish that their governor had been able to inject better math skills into the debate over standardized tests, the good news is that Governor Andrew Cuomo clearly made the right decision.

Earlier this week, Mr. Cuomo decided that the NYS standardized tests should not take place in French immersion classes. He did not make the same decision regarding the current math assessment, where higher math scores are part of a student’s junior year, or the newer science assessment, where students are assessed again in eighth grade.

In fact, teachers and students in English-immersion programs won a victory with the Cuomo decision, as the state demands more supervisory testing on students in a specific language compared to what they are currently required to take in math and science.

In French immersion programs across the state, English skills have a very different impact on the students’ progress than in English-immersion programs. It’s not unusual for French immersion students to learn multiplication problems that need the addition of two, three, and four. One student explained to me last year, “To be able to manage large quantities like potatoes and parsley, you are teaching us how to cope with big objects that are hard to handle. When I finish the multiplication problem at the end of the day, my brain is getting stronger.”

I think there is hope for younger students, too, considering that about 30 percent of New York high school students take English language arts for at least one year in kindergarten.

One thing I have realized over the past eight years at Warndon School in Montpelier, Vermont, is that education in a second language should not be limited to young students.

French immersion is a huge asset for a student who is already bilingual or learning another language at home, because they can benefit from a second language through material beyond math and science. Because French is native to so many people in the world, it provides kids in other languages with a unique opportunity to learn English and spread their knowledge of the language.

Children cannot afford to spend eight years in class missing out on something so important to their development.

It’s not simply the academics that are at stake here. It’s the cultural richness of learning a language that helps children grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially. If we want to make sure that kids like French immersion student Claire A. can learn by meeting them where they are in life, we must not close that door to their success.

After all, young people are graduating from high school today with an average of 37 months of brain development completed. Having 35 months of this “potential brain reserve”, as Mark Hyman, M.D., refers to it, fully developed by the end of high school doesn’t help anyone. And when you look at the brain, time is crucial. This learning is done day and night, not every summer break.

As Commissioner of Education MaryEllen Elia recently said, “There is too much instruction in English, too much loss in English.” To minimize “time lost” as Commissioner Elia so cleverly says, is the most effective way to increase student performance. And having better programming in French immersion is the way to do this.

Time is not in our child’s favor. Last year, for the first time, it took students an average of 49 hours to learn to read, write, and do basic math. But building a bridge to learning a second language before they have lost so much brain capacity makes a difference and will lead to improved performance in math and science.

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