Va. Schools Yield, Yet May Shape 'No Child'

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2007

Faced with the possible loss of millions of dollars in federal aid, Northern Virginia school systems have acquiesced reluctantly to federal requirements for testing children with limited English skills. But the dispute between local educators and federal regulators could influence the rewriting of the No Child Left Behind law.

Educators in Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties backed away last week from threats to defy a federal order to use grade-level reading tests for thousands of English learners in elementary and middle schools. Only immigrant students in U.S. schools for less than a year are exempt from the mandate.

Federal officials say the grade-level exams are needed to show how well students are learning and to rate school performance. Local educators say the reading tests, which could include questions about poetry, metaphors or hyperboles, are unfair to students who are only beginning to grasp the nuances of a language.

Fairfax County School Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) said he continues to believe it is wrong to administer tests that will pose major obstacles for beginning language learners. But, he said, if Fairfax schools had lost $17 million in federal aid -- a figure the U.S. Education Department brandished during the dispute -- it could have meant cuts in valuable programs.

"The children are being set up to fail by the U.S. Department of Education," Gibson said. "My dad used to talk about the golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules. They have the gold."

Virginia educators failed to convince federal education officials but said they will push their case with lawmakers who are considering renewal of the five-year-old law. Although questions about how to measure the progress of English-language learners have long been debated, the Virginia dispute heightened focus on the issue at a key moment on Capitol Hill.

"This has driven home to the Hill that this is a problem that needs to be addressed," said John F. Jennings, president and chief executive of the D.C.-based Center on Education Policy. "Both the House and Senate are looking at particular amendments. It's a formative time."

Reginald Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, said educators nationwide have become increasingly concerned about assessing students with limited English skills because the stakes are rising. Schools must raise scores across the board as they move toward the law's goal of proficiency in reading and math for all children by 2014.

The law calls for math and reading tests for students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. It requires schools to improve scores over time. Subgroups of students -- including ethnic minorities, disabled students and those learning English -- also must make adequate progress every year for a school to make the grade. Schools that don't meet annual goals face sanctions up to possible management shake-ups or state intervention.

English learners pose an especially tough challenge because their ranks are in constant flux. Each year, many students enter schools speaking little or no English, while students who have mastered the language shed the label "limited English proficient." That churn means that schools are continually starting over with this group of students. To help ease the burden on schools, federal rules allow students to be counted in the limited-English testing group for two years after they've mastered the language.

Federal officials also cite the testing exemption for students in the country for less than a year as evidence of their flexibility in enforcement. They note that the District and most states, including Maryland, have complied with the testing rules. U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings accused Virginia of "dragging its feet" in a February letter published in The Washington Post after the Fairfax School Board and others passed resolutions threatening defiance of the testing mandate. She noted that English-language learners are a fast-growing sector of students. "If we want them to learn with their peers and achieve the American dream, we have to pick up the pace," she wrote.

In July 2006, the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, issued a report on reading and math tests for English learners. It found that experts "expressed concerns about whether all states are assessing these students in a valid and reliable manner." The Education Department is teaming with states to create better tests.

Now that local educators have conceded the fight, some in Fairfax and elsewhere worry their schools will be labeled as failing because some limited-English students will struggle on tests. Across Virginia, about 10,200 such students were at the center of the dispute, about half of them in Fairfax.

"Fairfax is still confronted with the reality that once we go through this exercise to accommodate the U.S. Department of Education, the system is still going to have 5,000 kids who have a test in front of them, and perhaps 10 percent can take it," said Fairfax School Board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence). "How is it helpful to have them take a test that is not valid?"

Virginia schools previously had tested how well these students were learning to become proficient in English. This spring, the Fairfax system and others will give the students tougher grade-level exams but give them bilingual dictionaries and other accommodations, if needed.

In Fairfax and across Virginia, educators will follow the federal rules. But they said they will tell students they can stop taking a test if the material appears to be too difficult. A memo from the Virginia Department of Education on Thursday said students can "indicate to the test examiner either verbally, or non-verbally by shaking his/her head 'no' . . . that he or she is not able to complete any more items."

"Kids will have the test before them," Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said. "What we're giving them is the freedom to say, 'I can no longer continue.' We want to do the humane thing." Testing begins next month.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company