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Fairfax Schools Concede On Testing

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fairfax County school officials backed down yesterday from a vow to defy federal testing rules for students with limited English skills, saying they would give most of those students grade-level reading exams even if they were likely to stumble on items dealing with metaphors, poetry or other difficult material.

The decision marked a sharp turnabout for educators in the state's largest school system, who had led others in Virginia in opposition to the federal law. It also defused a confrontation over the federal No Child Left Behind law that had drawn wide attention.

The local educators repeatedly have argued that it is unfair to have students who are beginning to learn to speak, read and write English take reading tests that mirror those given to native speakers. The Fairfax School Board passed a resolution in January that gave Superintendent Jack D. Dale authority to defy the rules and instead administer tests for English learners that he considered more appropriate.

But federal officials, who contended that grade-level tests were necessary to measure student progress, had threatened to withhold an estimated $17 million in aid to Fairfax schools if they failed to comply. The federal officials said money for other school systems considering a testing rebellion also would be in jeopardy.

Yesterday, Dale said that he has told all principals to follow federal rules when testing begins next month. But students will be allowed to stop if the material becomes too difficult. "Kids will have the test before them, and they will be encouraged to do the best they can," Dale said. "When they reach a point where they can no longer continue, they can say they are done."

The school system said in a statement that the decision was made after "efforts . . . to advocate on behalf of providing appropriate and necessary instruction and testing for students were rejected by the U.S. Department of Education."

Education Department spokesman Chad Colby said federal officials were pleased by the county's decision and will work with the Virginia systems to develop new tests for limited-English students that can be used in coming years.

Immigrant students who have been in U.S. schools for less than a year are exempt from the reading test. But federal officials say all other students should be tested at grade level to help schools improve instruction.

The dispute in Virginia began last summer when federal officials rejected the tests Virginia had been giving to those children because they didn't cover grade-level reading skills, instead measuring how well students were learning to read, speak and write English.

Last night, it appeared that Arlington and Loudoun county schools, which had also considered defying the rules, would follow the Fairfax system's lead.

Arlington schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos said officials have decided to give English-learning students the required tests. Those unable to finish them will be allowed to stop when they can go no further, she said. "We still feel all of this is very unfair," Erdos said.

Loudoun Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III said he is likely to recommend a procedure whereby teachers administer the required tests to all students but will be able to take them away if the English learners are struggling.

Hatrick said that approach would comply with the letter of the law. "It does not make educational sense or academic sense, but the U.S. Department of Education does not make sense either," he said.

Staff writers Tara Bahrampour and Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.


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