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NCLB Outrages

Va. Educators Decry Ruling On Tests for ESL Students

Does anyone doubt that this is designed to set up schools for failure?

The Fed flunky has the nerve to accuse schools that want a reasonable test of "low expectations."

By Maria Glod

U.S. education officials have concluded that Virginia must toss out some state reading tests used to measure the progress of immigrants learning English, a decision that local educators warn could force them to give thousands of students exams that they are likely to fail.

In June, the U.S. Education Department rejected the Virginia tests because they don't cover the same material as exams given to students fluent in English. To meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the federal officials said, most students not proficient in English must take the same grade-level reading tests as their peers who are native speakers.

Another option, the federal officials said, was for Virginia to devise other tests that better match state standards. The implication of the federal decision was that some of Virginia's current tests are not tough enough.

But school officials in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties and elsewhere in the state contend that it's unfair to expect that students who don't have a mastery of the language will understand concepts such as metaphor, hyperbole or analogy. The Virginia Board of Education last week voted to ask federal officials to give the state more time to develop an alternative. With its vote, the state board also sought permission to use the old test next spring.

In Fairfax, which has a large immigrant population and is the region's largest school system, some officials are considering a more provocative step. School Board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said he will propose at Thursday's board meeting that the county stick with the old test for limited-English students. If approved, that move could lead many of the county's schools to fail to meet federal standards.

"As Fairfax, we should be a leader," Niedzielski-Eichner said. "When it's potentially harmful to children, we have to make a stand. We'd essentially be dooming a child to fail because he doesn't have language skills yet."

Similar debates are unfolding across the country as educators search for the best way to determine whether children learning English as a second language are making the grade under the federal law. When federal officials rejected Virginia's test, they also found problems with the way students with limited English are tested in 17 other states. Such problems were not found in Maryland or the District.

For example, New York schools also were told a test they had been using for many recent immigrant children did not pass federal muster, a decision that has sparked an outcry from educators there.

"Let's at least be fair," said Frank Auriemma, superintendent of New York's Pearl River School District. "Let's imagine that at 11 years old I went to Moscow and . . . a year later I had to take an assessment in Russian. How fair would that be?"

The federal law exempts students who have been in a U.S. school for less than a year from taking the reading tests. Chad Colby, a spokesman for the U.S. Education Department, said the tests are crucial to help pinpoint academic problem areas. He said children with limited English proficiency may be allowed special accommodations, including the use of a bilingual dictionary or more time to take the test. But he said the federal government's goals are the same for all students whether they have limited English or not.

"You can't have a different expectation for a kid," Colby said. "They are part of the system they move to in this country, and you can't have low expectations." But Colby said federal officials have agreed to meet with Virginia educators to discuss their concerns.

Across Virginia, about 10,200 students will be affected by the change, state education officials said. About 4,000 are in Fairfax schools.

One day last week, a few of those students practiced anchoring the daily news program at Bailey's Elementary School in the Falls Church area. Fifth-grader Isael Ramos Argueta, who was born in El Salvador, read from a script as his teacher pointed to each word on an overhead projector.

"Today on WBES Channel 6 news, we will be sharing information about Mickey Mouse and friends, the Halloween countdown, the book fair and the box top winner," he said, stumbling slightly over "Halloween."

Fairfax County School Superintendent Jack D. Dale said children such as Isael, 10, who entered the school system in April 2005, make progress quickly but are just beginning to acquire English and often can't grasp the nuances needed for grade-level work.

For example, fifth-graders taking the standard reading test must be able to describe how an "author's choice of vocabulary and style contributes to the quality and enjoyment of selections." Until now, those with limited English have been given separate tests that measure proficiency and comprehension using passages with a range of difficulty.

Once students learn enough English, usually after a few years, they take the same tests as their peers.

Schools in Maryland and the District use grade-level tests for students who are learning English, but some of those students are given special accommodations.

Gary L. Heath, Maryland's assistant superintendent of accountability and assessment, said schools will face an increasing challenge as academic goals rise. Many of the students learning English struggle on the tests, he said, particularly in older grades. In the past school year, just over 55 percent of third-graders with limited English passed the reading test. Among eighth-graders, less than 24 percent passed.

"There are a number of challenges" for limited-English students "that No Child Left Behind doesn't quite have figured out," Heath said.

The Virginia Department of Education also has asked the federal government for permission to use a portfolio of a student's work, instead of a test, to measure whether the nonnative speakers make the grade. Officials in Fairfax and elsewhere said that would require extensive teacher training and take time away from classroom instruction.

Dale said that if the school board decides to defy the federal government, the school system and many schools could be at risk of not making "adequate yearly progress" under the federal law. That, in turn, could put some schools in jeopardy of sanctions.

If that happens, Dale said, "It would be a label imposed by the federal government, and that's it. As I talk to parents, they are most concerned about their children's progress and not with labels that don't make sense."

— Maria Glod
Washington Post


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