Va. Educators Decry Ruling On Tests for ESL Students

ESL students Isael Ramos Argueta, Nancy Eduardo De Paz and Yessica Argueta review work at Bailey's Elementary.
ESL students Isael Ramos Argueta, Nancy Eduardo De Paz and Yessica Argueta review work at Bailey's Elementary. (Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post)
By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

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.

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