Don't Speak English? Test 'em Anyway!
Ohanian Comment: Here's what the federal requirement for testing all students looks like. The reporter says some educators say that testing kids who don't speak English is cruel. Does this mean other educators think it's fine and dandy?
Don't you love the state directive that says students like Jose can be given more time on the test? Time for what? More tears?
Only days after arriving in Hartford from Puerto Rico in September, sixth-grader Jose Torres found himself staring at an exam written entirely in a language he could not read.
"Nervioso," Jose, 13, said, explaining in Spanish that he felt nervous when Sanchez School gave him the Connecticut Mastery Test because he did not understand what was happening.
The test is available only in English. The school, however, was required to give it to Jose and other new immigrants under the rules of President Bush's school reform law, the No Child Left Behind Act.
State officials had sought an exemption of 10 months for newcomers who do not speak English, but the U.S. Department of Education refused to allow it, saying the law requires the testing of all students.
Connecticut officials oppose developing a new test in Spanish on both financial and educational grounds, said Abigail L. Hughes, an associate commissioner with the state Department of Education. It could cost $250,000 to $400,000 in a three-year process that would require pilot testing, she said.
More important, the use of non-English tests could be counterproductive, she said. "In states that have native language assessment," she said, "there is much more emphasis on maintaining the native language and not enough on learning English."
The federal law expands testing and is designed to force schools to focus on low-achieving students, including those who are learning English for the first time. Still, some educators say that requiring students such as Jose to take an English-language test is cruel.
"It is devastating to see their faces, their anger, their confusion," said Delia Bello-Davila, principal at Hartford's Sanchez School, where children who are still learning to speak English or who speak no English at all make up half the school's population.
About one-third of Ivette Santos' fifth- and sixth-grade bilingual class, including Jose, are recent arrivals.
"I ask them to do their best," Santos said.
How to measure schools with large populations of children who speak little or no English has been one of the most controversial issues in the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the law, schools can be penalized if even one group of children, including those learning English, fails to meet state standards on the test.
Even though a school is not held responsible for the test results of children who were not enrolled the previous year, schools such as Sanchez have virtually no chance of meeting the law's goals because many children still have difficulty with English, Bello-Davila said.
She and others have urged the state to create native-language versions of the mastery test for children who are still learning English.
So far, however, state officials have resisted the idea even though the No Child Left Behind Act says schools should test new arrivals "to the extent practicable ... in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data." The provision applies to children who have been in U.S. schools less than three years.
Texas, Illinois and New York are among a handful of states that offer tests in Spanish.
Jo Ann Webb, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, would not comment on the practice of asking non-English speakers to attempt taking a test written in English.
"That's a state call," she said. "It's a question you need to lay at the feet of state officials."
Hughes, the Connecticut official, points out that although Spanish-speaking children account for the majority of non-English speakers in public schools, there are more than 180 other languages also spoken among the state's schoolchildren.
"We also have a large Polish population," she said. "You can't do one and tell the others, `Too bad.'"
The state once granted exemptions from the mastery test for up to 30 months for students in bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs but noticed an improvement in student performance after reducing the exemption to 10 months, Hughes said.
She said the shorter exemption forced schools to focus on English sooner and raise expectations of students.
Nevertheless, Hughes said the federal government's insistence on eliminating the 10-month exemption is unreasonable. In a letter to schools across the state, the state education department acknowledged that the use of English tests for non-English speakers "could be extremely frustrating" but that the law requires all students to be given an opportunity to take the tests.
Students who are just learning English can be given extra time or receive test directions in their native language, but those who are obviously unable to continue should be given other assignments during the testing period, the letter said.
Even with those accommodations, the test makes little sense, said Bello-Davila, the Sanchez principal.
During one recent testing session, she peered through a small window in the door of a classroom that included several recent arrivals.
"Look at that one," she said, pointing to one boy looking at the exam. "They just pretend they're taking the test."
She added, "We've got nothing against testing. It's just that this data is meaningless. What am I proving here? Nothing. They are proving they don't know English. We know that. We don't need to expose them to the test."
The National Association for Bilingual Education supports the use of tests in students' native languages.
"It is extremely expensive" to create those tests, "but that is the cost of education," said Delia Pompa, the association's executive director.
"If [schools] really want to know what they're doing for children, it's better to assess them in a language they understand."
Robert A. Frahm
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