Virginia, Standards Are Long Overdue

Sunday, February 4, 2007

English language learners make up the nation's fastest-growing student population. By 2025, one in four students is expected to be limited-English-proficient (LEP). If we want them to learn with their peers and achieve the American dream, we have to pick up the pace.

Instead, Virginia is dragging its feet.

Recently, Fairfax County and two other school districts passed resolutions to exempt LEP students from reading assessments. One Fairfax school board member said they were "predisposed to fail." Meanwhile, the commonwealth insists on testing LEP students with an exam that did not pass independent peer review.

At issue is Virginia's use of the Stanford English Language Proficiency test (SELP) to assess reading achievement. The test does not measure grade-level proficiency, creating an incomplete picture of academic progress. In December, the commonwealth stated that it would forgo the SELP in favor of a more comprehensive exam tailored to the needs of LEP students. Last month, however, Virginia reversed itself and asked for an extension for the SELP -- making it the only state requesting not to use a standards-based exam to assess reading.

To help students achieve, we must first know how they're doing. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act calls for schools to help limited-English-proficient children "meet the same challenging state academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet."

Call it the Standards Clause. It's a key tool in our effort to combat the "soft bigotry of low expectations." And it's working.

Nationally, reading scores for LEP fourth-graders increased by 20 points from 2000 to 2005, more than three times better than their peers. Fourth- and eighth-graders achieved higher math scores than in any previous year. Among Hispanic students, who make up about 70 percent of LEP students, achievement gaps for 9-year-olds in reading and math have shrunk to record lows.

These positive results are dispelling several negative myths. One is that LEP students are at a disadvantage because most are recent arrivals to the country. In fact, about 80 percent have resided here at least five years. Another is that test-takers are not allowed reasonable accommodations. Not true -- under NCLB, they may receive accommodations such as additional time, oral translation or the use of a bilingual dictionary.

The Education Department has been more than accommodating to Virginia. We permitted the use of the SELP test until it could be peer-reviewed. We allowed LEP students to be exempted if they had attended U.S. schools for less than 12 months. And since 2001, we've provided Virginia with $42 million in federal funds to develop quality assessments.

I speak not just as a policy wonk but as a mom whose daughter attended a Fairfax County school. So I am strongly committed to working with the commonwealth and its schools to help them fairly measure English language learners.

It's time to remember that yes, Virginia, there is a Standards Clause.

-- Margaret Spellings


The writer is the U.S. secretary of education.

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