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Schools to lobby against English testing change

Everybody should join these administrators in the resistance. Until and unless we feel a commonality with everybody's pain, the corporate-politico Standardistos win.

By Leah Rae

Several area school superintendents plan to give the public a crash course on a testing change that they say will only frustrate and punish immigrant children.

Administrators from South Orangetown, White Plains, New Rochelle and other districts met Wednesday in Port Chester to discuss how to mobilize against the change before they give the English language arts exams in January.

Before this school year, students who spoke little English had up to three years to work on their proficiency before taking the standard reading and writing test that others take in grades 3 to 8. Now, students have just one year's exemption.

That will hurt the children and their schools, critics say.

"They're going to be labeled as a failure," said Jessica O'Donovan, an administrator in Port Chester who took part in the meeting. "They're going to feel it when they take the test: Somehow they're not measuring up. And they've been set up. Because there's no way, there's no way, that these children could ever perform at grade-level proficiency."

Research says it takes five to seven years to reach academic proficiency in English, O'Donovan said.

The objections are being raised by suburban districts with growing immigrant populations. They plan to develop a position paper with the Lower Hudson Council of Superintendents on Friday, and then circulate the paper among elected officials, advocacy groups and the media. The council covers Westchester, Rockland, Putnam and Dutchess counties.

New York's controversial policy stems from a federal rule, part of the No Child Left Behind standards. If states don't comply, they lose a portion of federal funding.

"Clearly, we've lost the battle, but we can't afford to lose the war on this issue," said Harry Phillips III, a member of the state Board of Regents, which sets educational policy. "It's just too cruel to kids to have them take tests that they can't possibly pass - for no good reason."

Phillips said local members of Congress could put pressure on the U.S. Education Department. Federal officials said the testing requirements are intended to make schools accountable for the performance of students who are learning the English language.

Though school administrators stress that their main concern is for the children, they also are worried about bad grades.

"It's the community perception," O'Donovan said. Bad scores could lead to bad perceptions of the quality of the schools, along with an anti-immigrant sentiment "that those children are bringing down our schools," she said. Almost one in four Port Chester students has limited English.

In the suburbs, lower English scores could result in more school budgets being voted down, said Joseph Zambito, the South Orangetown superintendent and president of the Lower Hudson Council.

"If budgets go down, guess what? Everybody's going to suffer. Not just the students that are English language learners," he said.

There are about 200,000 students with limited English in New York. Not all of them are immigrants; some lack English because a different language is spoken at home, or because the family has moved from place to place.

In a report this month, researchers from the Center for Applied Linguistics called for better efforts to help adolescents who have limited English.

Among other things, the study supported the idea of giving an English proficiency test for three years before testing on "content areas" in English. Students who are learning English, the study said, have to work twice as hard as others to meet the same testing standards.

Better efforts are needed, said Jon Moscow, a longtime parent advocate on the advisory board of the Center for Immigrant Families in New York City. But he called the testing policy a bureaucratic problem that puts a burden on children.

"You're asking children," he said, " to take an examination that, A, they cannot understand, and B, they cannot pass, and that nobody claims has any validity."

— Leah Rae
The Journal News


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