As Tests Begin, English Learners Have Troubles but Few Tears

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Hector Moctezuma said he got off to a good start on Virginia's English test. But by the end, the Fairfax County eighth-grader was tired, hungry and guessing.

"It was, like, easy, and then it got really hard," Hector said after taking the test this month. "I read, and then if I didn't understand it, I tried to think. It got harder and harder, and I got confused." The source of the 13-year-old's frustration: He moved to Virginia last year from Puerto Rico, and his first language is Spanish.

Under a federal mandate enforced this spring in Virginia for the first time, thousands of beginners in English are taking the same reading tests as peers who are native speakers. Fears that the tests would traumatize some students, even drive them to tears, haven't been realized. But educators said many have shared Hector's struggle to comprehend some parts of the exam. They also have shared his determination to finish.

"Kids are little troupers," said Michael C. Loso, assistant superintendent for instruction for Harrisonburg schools in the Shenandoah Valley. "They work hard, and they try to take the test."

Educators in Fairfax, Harrisonburg, Loudoun County and elsewhere had resisted the federal mandate, arguing that students without mastery of the language aren't prepared for such concepts as metaphor, hyperbole or analogy. The rebellion ended after federal education officials threatened to withhold funds. The federal officials said tests required under the No Child Left Behind law will help schools pinpoint how programs fall short and ensure that students with limited English aren't forgotten.

As Congress considers renewal of the federal law, the Virginia dispute has intensified debate over the best way to measure progress for about 5 million English learners in schools nationwide. The U.S. Education Department, which last year rejected assessments used in Virginia and 17 other states, is helping states create new tests.

Virginia's reading scores won't be made public until August, but local educators predict that many English learners will fail. If that happens, more schools might fall short of academic standards under the federal law.

New York educators, who also opposed the federal mandate, recently were surprised when test results for thousands of English learners showed only a modest decline in performance.

Across Virginia, the roughly 10,000 students at the center of the controversy are in the midst of reading tests. In Fairfax, home to about 4,000 of them, some students spent hours agonizing over the untimed tests, educators said, while others finished quickly, apparently choosing many answers at random. A teacher at Bailey's Elementary School in Falls Church said one third-grade boy didn't want to hand in his test, telling the proctor, "I just couldn't do it."

"Some students are really persevering and trying to finish. Whether they are comprehending is the big issue," said Teddi Predaris, the director of English for Speakers of Other Languages in Fairfax. "Others are doing what they can do and finishing early."

Naomi Kim, 14, an eighth-grader at Liberty Middle School in Fairfax, said that she thinks she did well at the start of the reading exam but that the passages grew more difficult as she continued. She read each one several times before she understood it and relied heavily on her bilingual dictionary -- one of several accommodations for students with limited English.

"I read it five times over and over again," she said, adding that she often jotted down Korean translations next to the English. "I wanted to give up, but I tried my best."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company