Fairfax vs. 'No Child' Standoff Heats Up; County to Protest Mandate on English Tests for Immigrants
By Maria Glod
Teenagers from Uzbekistan, Korea and Egypt huddled one recent morning in a Fairfax County classroom, studying English words on slips of paper. Dozens were familiar, but not "bitter," "nibble" or "wicked." Felobateer Hana, 13, held up another. An animated movie character came to mind: "Shrek?"
"That's a good guess, but Shrek doesn't have an 'i' in it," said teacher Karyn Niles at Liberty Middle School in Clifton. "This is 'shriek.' Shriek is kind of like yelling."
Students such as Felobateer and his eighth-grade classmates, all recent immigrants who are learning English as a second language, are at the center of an intensifying dispute between Virginia schools and the U.S. Department of Education over testing requirements under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Fairfax County school officials are protesting a federal mandate to give most English learners reading tests that mirror those taken by their native-speaking peers. Tonight, the school system is taking a major step toward challenging that mandate and the federal law.
School board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence), backed by other members and school administrators, plans to propose a resolution that would authorize officials to refuse to give immigrant students tests that they think most would fail.
The resolution could come to a vote as soon as Jan. 25. If it passes, several Fairfax schools probably will fall short of federal academic standards.
"When it comes between doing what's educationally sound for children and doing what's best for bureaucrats, I'm siding with children every day of the week," said school board Member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill).
School officials in Arlington and Harrisonburg are considering a similar step.
As Congress prepares to debate renewal of the five-year-old federal law, controversy has emerged over how to measure the progress of children learning English. The federal government objected last year to the way Virginia and 17 other states test limited-English students. Often, federal officials indicated, the state tests for such students were not demanding enough. They said that all students in a given state must be held to the same standards.
"It's important students enrolled in our schools are properly assessed, and that includes limited-English-proficient students," Chad Colby, an Education Department spokesman, said yesterday. "With testing, we have more data. So policymakers and educators at every level will have more information to make sure students who need more help get it."
One of the 17 states that drew a federal objection was Texas, home state of President Bush. Another was New York, which has asked federal officials to waive test scores for certain students who are recent immigrants.
Testing programs for English learners in Maryland and the District have withstood federal scrutiny.
Fairfax is well positioned to challenge the law because of its record of high academic achievement, said Wayne E. Wright, professor of bicultural and bilingual studies at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
"The feds are saying, 'If you say an English language learner cannot meet state standards, you have low expectations,' " Wright said. "The classroom teachers are saying, 'The federal government has completely unrealistic expectations.' "
Until now, Virginia has given English learners a specialized proficiency test to measure progress in reading. Many Virginia educators say that children who lack mastery of the language aren't prepared for grade-level exams that may include questions about similes, metaphors or analogies. They say it can take three or more years of school to reach that level.
Federal law requires testing every year in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. The government exempts students who have been in a U.S. school for less than a year from taking standard grade-level reading tests.
But after one year, the students are supposed to enter the testing mainstream. Federal officials say that students with limited English skills may be given special assistance, such as a bilingual dictionary or more time on a test.
But many local educators say the federal standard is too lofty for students just beginning to understand the nuances of English. The Virginia Board of Education has asked federal officials for permission to use the old, specialized test this spring, giving the state a year to design new tests aligned with state standards. Virginia's congressional delegation is lobbying Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to grant the request. Colby said Spellings has not made a decision. Fairfax officials support the one-year deferral, saying that it would be the best solution.
About 10,200 Virginia students are affected by the testing dispute, state officials said. About 4,000 are in Fairfax, which has the largest school system in the state and the Washington region.
At Liberty Middle School, Niles said her class shows why grade-level tests would stump many recent immigrants. She said that her students are making rapid progress but are still learning to decipher sounds and rules of English.
This week, the class was reading "The Enormous Crocodile," learning about character, plot and theme through a fourth-grade text. Other eighth-graders who are native English speakers were studying John Steinbeck's "The Pearl." Niles predicted that many of her students would be overwhelmed by passages in the standard state reading test.
"They'd shut down," she said. "They'll just put their heads down."
Under the resolution, English learners will continue to take proficiency tests, and the Fairfax district will report the results. Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale is urging principals and teachers to focus on Virginia standards and county goals and not worry about the threat of federal sanctions.
"It's time for us to describe what are the quality parts about the law and what needs to be altered to make sense," Dale said.
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