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Immigrant Children Shielded From State Tests, but for Whose Protection?

Ohanian Comment: Note what faith the writer puts in the standardized test: No Child Left Behind testing policy lacks a fine enough filter for the nuances of immigrant education. A more calibrated policy — one that can distinguish between a Dayana and an Israel, for example — would allow Port Chester to figure out more intelligently how well it is doing.

Yes, testing immigrant children is an abuse but the greater abuse is putting so much faith in standardized tests. These tests do not inform teachers and schools and districts and communities the way education reporters seem to think they do.



By Joseph Berger

PORT CHESTER, N.Y.

“Put your pencils down!” Yannyn Suarez commanded her third-grade English-as-second-language class. “Eyes on me! Sit up straight!”

She began telling a story about a boy named Kirby who could not find the gym shoes he needed for the big game. The story ended happily. When Kirby’s dog, Buster, scrambled off his dog bed, there, to Kirby’s delight, were the shoes.

The third graders, all from Latino immigrant families though some were born in the United States, listened with the nervous intentness of children practicing for the first make-or-break test of their young lives, the New York State English language arts test. One portion assesses the ability to listen and remember details without seeing the text, so when the teacher read the story a second time, the students took notes. But not all notes were of the same caliber.

Israel Arellano, a squirmy 8-year-old with a crew cut, was able to take polished notes with just one misspelling:

“Kirby lost his gym shoes and was sad because he had a champinship,” he wrote in neat lowercase.

Dayana Ceja, a more earnest 8-year-old with a flawless ponytail, took notes that were far more disjointed. “Kirby Shouse Mom Dad Gym,” she wrote.

School officials in this working-class village tucked between the wealthy towns of Rye, N.Y., and Greenwich, Conn., would rather that neither Dayana nor Israel, both of whom were born in the United States, take the English test when it is given statewide on Jan. 8. They say they do not want such children to be embarrassed by their scores. But they also do not want those scores to embarrass the village. Theirs is a district where 90 percent of fourth graders score well enough to be regarded as proficient readers. That statistic helps the district attract well-heeled transplants from New York City.

But that statistic is also not a true reflection of the district because so many students from immigrant homes have been exempted from taking the test, even if they were born in this country. The district’s policy, which state law allows, has been to spare children from immigrant families from taking the test if they have been in the school system less than five years. That excludes about 15 percent of Port Chester’s elementary school students and 10 percent of middle-school students. And so those students have been taking easier substitute tests.

Then last June, the United States Department of Education, enforcing the No Child Left Behind law, deemed New York’s substitutes inadequate and required all students in school for more than a year to take regular tests. Tests in 21 other states face have similarly been challenged.

That was bad news for Port Chester. Officials here now predict that when the January scores are published, the proportion of proficient students will drop into the 70s. They worry that their schools will be branded in need of improvement and suffer penalties. They worry that prospective homebuyers may opt for other towns. And they worry about the students’ self-confidence.

“That poor child is going to have to sit through a test that is completely developmentally inappropriate and feel a sense of anxiety and failure,” said Jessica O’Donovan, Port Chester’s director of programs for English language learners.

Those concerns explain why officials here joined with those in Tarrytown, Ossining and other suburban districts with large immigrant populations to prevent so-called English language learners like Dayana and Israel from taking the test. The members of the State Board of Regents were sympathetic.

“For someone who has been in this country a year, the chances of passing are almost nonexistent so it’s destructive of a kid’s self-image,” Harry Phillips III, a regent, said in an interview.

But the Regents Board members ultimately decided that they could not disobey federal law. State officials, however, are asking that when federal officials rate schools, they not count the January test scores of those students who have been in American schools for less than two years.

THERE are few issues in education more complicated and politically charged than the education of immigrant children — whether they should be immersed in English or placed in more gradual bilingual classes, and whether they should be tested in the same way as their non-immigrant peers.

There are strong arguments to be made that five years may be too long to exempt immigrant students from taking mainstream tests but that one year may be too short. Perhaps someone like Dayana, whose parents speak no English and cannot help with schoolwork, should be exempted. But perhaps Israel, who has older siblings fluent in English, should be encouraged to dip into the mainstream, not just on tests but also in the classes to which he is assigned.

Forcing every immigrant to take a grade-level English test after one year in this country can be callous. Perhaps a 6- or 7-year-old can slip into a new language in a year’s time, but experts say older children may take years to feel secure.

Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in language development, points out that tests given to immigrant children who enter American schools late, say in middle school, put them at a particular disadvantage because they do not have the same cultural references as their classmates.

On the other hand, some educators think younger students from immigrant families should be given mainstream tests sooner, just as they should be placed in mainstream classes sooner — where they can be exposed to more rigorous course work and fluent English speakers.

“The question is how we use the information,” said Pedro Noguera, professor of sociology at Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. “If we’re going to use it to penalize schools, we’re going to create disincentives for schools to want to serve needy children.” He worries that schools, fearful of lower rankings, may discourage some immigrants with from enrolling.

Many schools like to play an exemption game — removing from the totals the scores of children who are, say, poor or have learning disabilities. But postponing tests for immigrant children for five years conceals from parents and from schools themselves whether students are improving or not.

“Think of this as a parent,” said Chad Colby a United States Department of Education spokesman. “You have a child who starts kindergarten and then they’re still in school at the end of fourth grade, and that’s the first time you’re going to be held accountable for an education?”

Like Mr. Noguera, Diane Ravitch, the education historian, says she thinks testing students after one year may not be a bad idea, but is concerned about how the scores are used. Comparing this year’s Port Chester fourth graders with last year’s based on the upcoming test will put this year’s students and the schools needlessly to shame because last year’s classes did not have many immigrant children tested. But comparing how well students do this school year with how those same students do a year later, Ms. Ravitch said, would provide a telling reflection of the school’s progress. The federal government has started a pilot program in such so-called “growth model” comparisons in Tennessee and North Carolina.

What many experts seem to agree on is that No Child Left Behind testing policy lacks a fine enough filter for the nuances of immigrant education. A more calibrated policy — one that can distinguish between a Dayana and an Israel, for example — would allow Port Chester to figure out more intelligently how well it is doing.

As the system is now, many Port Chester students who have worked hard to master English may feel deflated by next year’s test results. Kristin Favale, who teaches a bilingual third grade class, said some students who have been here little more than a year would struggle with the test’s vocabulary and phrasing. “The test will not show the progress they’ve made in one year,” she said.

— Joseph Berger
New York Times
2006-12-27


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