When Testing Means Guessing
Welcome to America. Now take a test. It is unimaginable that educators would put children through this. When will the unions stand up and say "No!" Lacking union principles, when will teachers?
Mai Yang clutched his pencil, wondering how he and other new Hmong refugees would do today on the first day of standardized testing.
Mai's third-grade class at the Academy for New Americans took a practice test Friday to prepare for the state's Standardized Testing and Reporting exam. Students in grades 2 through 11 must take the STAR, an exam entirely in English that contains language arts and math components.
"We don't know how to read this," 8-year-old Mai said in Hmong.
Yee Hang, a third-grade classmate at the academy, interjected: "I don't know how to answer."
Nine-year-old Chi Nou Yang shouted out: "Do whatever."
Eight minutes later, Mai plopped his hands on his head, notifying his teacher that he was done with the reading portion of the practice test. The section is designed to take about 25 minutes to complete but the class finished it in 10 minutes.
"I don't think they should be taking this test," said Song Vu, the teacher in the class.
"They try to read every word. They are searching for anything they can make a correlation. It's too hard for them. They are definitely frustrated."
The academy, which opened this school year in Fresno, could end up as a low-performing school if students earn low scores and if the school doesn't improve in subsequent years. The academy's principal worries that could happen in the future because of the vast number of recent refugee children.
"They will do better next year, but they will be below basic. We know we will stink," said Principal Susan K. Sanders.
The school staff knows the children can't understand English, Sanders said.
"The scores won't tell us anything" about what the students can do, she said. "I don't understand the rationale."
Sanders said it takes time for refugee children to pick up the English language and catch up with other students who speak English well.
Students must take the exam regardless of how long they have been enrolled in school, said Linda Lownes, consultant for the standards and assessment division of the state Department of Education. There are no waivers, Lownes said.
State test results are used to rank public schools on California's annual Academic Performance Index. They help determine whether each school is meeting federal goals — Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP — set in the federal No Child Left Behind education reform act.
The AYP results are of particular concern for high-poverty schools that receive federal money to help low-performing students. If these schools fail to meet AYP goals for two consecutive years, they could face sanctions such as replacing campus leaders or having an outside manager take over.
Hundreds of Hmong refugee children have enrolled in the academy since August. Some of the students entered the school after January. About 490 students, including Spanish-speaking children, attend the academy. The kindergarten-to-12th-grade school expects 350 more children by September. They are the recent wave of Hmong refugees to leave the Wat Tham Krabok camp in Thailand for the United States.
Hmong refugees began to leave the camp in June. About 2,000 of the 15,000 refugees are expected to settle in Fresno County.
Many of the refugee students can recite their ABCs, count numbers and print their names in English. They wrestle with reading and comprehension. So, Vu encouraged them to make their best guess and fill in a bubble.
Two of the 22 students didn't know how to write their last names and asked for help. Several struggled to write their names by filling in the appropriate bubble for each letter.
Despite educators' concerns about how the students would react, none cried or threw a fit. They either erased and started over again or called for help. Many looked perplexed or somewhat frustrated.
"For a lot of them, it will affect them because they want to do well," said 24-year-old Lao Thao, a teacher's assistant who is working to complete a teacher credential program.
Each student was given a little privacy. Each student kept open a folder that stood on his or her desk. It worked as a divider to separate the students from neighbors as they took the test.
Mai Yang looked anyway at his 8-year-old neighbor, Pao Lee Chang, and pointed at one of Pao's answers. A teacher's assistant stepped in and told Mai and Pao they couldn't do that. Mai said he just guessed at all the questions on the test.
"I wasn't scared," Mai said in Hmong through an interpreter.
A desk away, Chi Nou Yang kept his eyes moving line by line, trying to answer each question. He rubbed his left ear, tapped his right foot and switched his hands to hold his head up. Chi Nou later lifted his folder and started playing with it.
The rest of his classmates started putting their hands on their heads, signaling that they had finished.
"It was hard," Chi Nou said in Hmong.
When asked what he thinks about today's test, he said: "I'm more scared."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES