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NCLB Outrages

WASL: Take it without a bit of English?

Here is one victim of the stupid, mean-spirit federal rule that EVERYBODY has to take the standardized test, whether or not they speak English.

By Jessica Blanchard

He could rail against the unfairness of it all, but Robinsson Franco is resigned.

The 18-year-old Honduran immigrant is among the hundreds of Seattle public high school students taking the reading and writing WASL tests this week, even though he puts his chances of passing the 10th-grade tests this year at slim to none.

"I feel a little bit scared," he admits. "But we have to try, you know?"

The Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests have become a frustrating annual exercise for both students and educators at Franco's school, the Secondary Bilingual Orientation Center in Queen Anne.

The 263 teenage students there are all recent immigrants and refugees who don't yet speak or read well enough in English to transfer to one of Seattle Public Schools' traditional middle or high schools -- meaning that even if they understand the material covered on a section of the WASL, there's still virtually no way they'll pass.

Still, federal law requires the school to make sure its students meet the same test-score targets as students who speak English fluently -- no exceptions. None of the students at the Bilingual Orientation Center in recent years has passed the WASL, landing the school on the federal "needs improvement" list -- an embarrassing label that comes with new sanctions each year.

"We have excellent, motivated students, great teachers, high attendance rates," English teacher David White-Espin said. "By all other indicators, we're a thriving school. But our test scores don't show it."

In Washington, all students must take the math WASL, regardless of how long they've lived in the country or whether they have the English skills to be able to understand the text-heavy questions.

Students who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for less than a year get a one-year reprieve before they're expected to take the reading and writing WASL. But for most of the state's 12,000 or so high-school students who are classified as "English language learners," it will take far longer than a year to develop the language skills necessary to pass the 10th-grade tests.

Students at the Bilingual Orientation Center are typically enrolled for a year and a half or less before they have a solid enough grasp of English to transfer to a traditional school. Even then, "they're advanced beginners when they leave here," White-Espin said.

Watching students struggle to take the WASL is heartbreaking, counselor Lilia Goldsmith said. Every year, she sees students who are able to do high school-level academic work in their native language and who have dreams of graduating and going to college. They have yet to master English, but are determined to attempt the WASL.

Many are so discouraged after the first day of testing that they don't come back, Goldsmith said.

That's the irony behind the No Child Left Behind law, she said: "You are leaving so many behind. What, as a society, are we going to do with these kids?"

The problems surrounding how English-language learners are tested aren't new -- since the No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2002, education officials from several states have unsuccessfully appealed to the federal Department of Education to loosen the rules and requirements for testing bilingual students.

With English language learners likely to continue to be required to take WASL, staff members from state Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson's office have begun exploring ways to make the test more accessible to those students.

The simplest solution would be to translate the tests, but the costs are staggering. To translate the math and science tests at all grade levels would cost $220,000 to $440,000 per language, and translating just the high-school exams would cost about $60,000 to 120,000 each year per language, according to state estimates.

Among the other possibilities state officials are studying:

# Simplifying the language used in WASL questions;

# Substituting scores from annual English language-acquisition tests for WASL scores;

# Giving bilingual students translated versions of test questions on CD or DVD.

For now, many bilingual students such as Franco plan to tackle the WASL, and hope they'll eventually pass it before they either run out of retake opportunities or turn 21 and have to leave public schools.

Franco won't know his scores until June, but he's already pretty sure of the outcome: "I have four more chances."

— Jessica Blanchard
Seattle Post-Intelligencer


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