By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007
The U.S. Department of Education threatened yesterday to take "enforcement action" against Virginia if any school districts defy a federal mandate to give reading tests to thousands of immigrant students.
In a sharply worded letter, Deputy Secretary of Education Raymond Simon said he is "greatly distressed" that some school districts, including Fairfax County, might violate the No Child Left Behind Act. Simon urged Virginia to enforce the law. If it does not, he said, federal education officials could step in, possibly withholding funds.
The dispute began last year when federal education officials rejected the reading exams that Virginia has given to many students learning English, because the tests don't cover the same grade-level material as those given to students fluent in English. Virginia educators fighting the mandate say that students who haven't mastered the language are likely to fail a traditional test and that it is unfair to administer it.
Last week, the Fairfax School Board voted to refuse to give the reading test, which is administered in the spring, to many immigrant children. The Harrisonburg School Board passed a similar measure, and Arlington County school officials are considering such a step.
Yesterday, federal education officials denied Virginia's request to use the old test for another year. They have said that Virginia educators had been aware of federal requirements for years and had ample time to design a new test. State officials disputed that, saying that they learned last spring that the assessment Virginia had used might be rejected.
Despite yesterday's warning from Simon, Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said he stands by the School Board's decision.
Fairfax will continue to test how well students with limited proficiency are learning to read, speak and write English, he said, but will only give Virginia's Standards of Learning reading tests to students who have made significant progress.
"Fairfax is doing the right thing for kids," Dale said. "We're holding all kids accountable to learn English and do it as quickly as possible." He said that Fairfax would put the Standards of Learning test "in front of the kids when they've learned enough English to have it in front of them."
Simon said in an interview that students learning English must be tested on grade-level material to determine whether they are making progress. He asked Virginia state Superintendent Billy K. Cannaday Jr. to ensure that local school districts comply.
"No Child Left Behind says all children will be able to read and do math at grade level," Simon said. "The whole point of No Child Left Behind is to find out what they know and don't know and target resources. . . . We want the law to be followed."
Cannaday said last night that he is "profoundly disappointed" in the federal response and that he joins educators statewide who are frustrated by the prospect of giving children who don't grasp the nuances of a language tests that may cover concepts such as metaphor, hyperbole or analogy.
"Our superintendents have sworn to uphold the law, but they also have a moral and ethical contract with the community, and I think they are trying to balance the two," Cannaday said. "I think our superintendents are expressing frustration about how do they make sense out of something that doesn't appear to be reasonable."
About 10,200 Virginia students, including 4,000 in Fairfax, are affected by the change, state education officials said. Students who have been in the United States less than a year are exempt from taking the reading tests.
Others learning English are allowed accommodations, such as bilingual dictionaries or more time. Once students learn enough English, they take the same tests as their peers.