Annabeth Martinez, a 13-year-old Mexican girl who arrived in the United States a few months ago, spent her first days at Sterling Middle School last week learning the English alphabet. In science, she drew pictures of fire extinguishers during a lesson on safety--a term that teachers defined for her simply as "not to get hurt."

But this week, even as Annabeth begins to learn enough English to recite her telephone number and address, her science teacher will be moving quickly to explain the scientific method and the meaning of such words as "hypothesis"--concepts certain to show up on the tough new state tests she soon will be required to take.

Will she be able to keep up? "You learn if you have to learn," she replied in Spanish.

In Virginia, Maryland and the District, the push is on again to prepare students for the standardized tests that are all the craze in education--and perhaps no group feels the pressure more than immigrant children such as Annabeth who are only beginning to learn English.

She and her classmates are at the center of a national debate over whether it makes sense to force students with limited English proficiency to take tests they may not fully understand. The question presents a dilemma for advocates for immigrants, who have long complained that schools ignore these children but now worry that the new tests may do more harm than good.

"It's really a hornet's nest . . . a Catch-22," said Theresa Bustillos, vice president of legal programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

She wants students with limited English skills included in assessment mechanisms that hold schools accountable. But, she said, "these test results are totally flawed unless that child has a mastery of English."

The stakes couldn't be higher. The District, along with Virginia and Maryland and 24 other states, have decided to require that high school students pass standardized exams to get a diploma. Teachers could be fired if their students do poorly. School systems face takeovers. The tests could determine whether students are held back a grade or forced into summer school.

Under the District's current timetable, this year's 10th-graders, the Class of 2002, would be the first in the region required to pass reading and math tests before graduating. In Virginia, this year's eighth-graders, the Class of 2004, will have to pass the state's new Standards of Learning tests--tests that large numbers of native English-speaking students have been failing. In Maryland, this year's seventh-graders, the Class of 2005, must pass similar tests to graduate.

"If we fail, we're doomed," said Cesar Mancia, 11, a sixth-grader at Sterling. "If we pass, we're cool."

The number of students in the region whose first language is not English has more than tripled in the past decade. Nationally, too, the number of students with limited English proficiency is growing faster than the overall school population, by more than 1 million students between 1992 and 1997.

Now, these demographics are colliding with a campaign to use "high stakes" tests to hold educators accountable for improving schools.

In Virginia, where schools will lose accreditation in 2007 if less than 70 percent of their students pass the tests, the state Board of Education recently decided not to count the scores of students with limited English skills who have been in the state less than five years--the time some researchers say it takes for the students to catch up.

But those students still will be required to take the tests--and pass them to graduate. Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria), who chairs a state commission established to reexamine the issue, said it makes no sense to give schools a break but demand that the students pass.

"If you have a math exam and you don't understand the language it's in, it's not a fair test of your knowledge of math. It's that simple," she said.

But state officials said students should graduate only after they have mastered enough English to pass the tests--and schools should be forced to make sure they do.

"We have to recognize that we do these children a disservice if we don't fully bring them up to speed in English," said Kirk T. Schroeder, president of the Virginia Board of Education.

Daniel A. Domenech, superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, which has more students with limited English proficiency than any other local jurisdiction, said school districts must be ready to keep students in high school until they can pass the exams.

"Let's say a kid arrives as a junior without English. What that means is they're not going to get a high school diploma until they're proficient enough to pass all these tests," he said. "It will be a problem for a lot of these youngsters . . . and ultimately that may [cause] them to drop out."

In Maryland and Virginia, students with limited English skills are permitted to skip the state tests once, if teachers decide they are not ready to take them. But unlike Virginia, Maryland officials don't exclude the test scores of these students in assessing school performance.

Maryland officials also have said they expect newcomers to English to pass the new tests to get a diploma, though the issue remains under discussion.

"We're concerned about improving performance for all students, and it's important for them to be part of the assessment as much as possible," said Ron Peiffer, assistant state superintendent.

But even testing advocates admit that the standardized tests are a flawed tool for measuring the academic knowledge of these students. A student may be proficient in math, science or other subjects but do poorly on the exams simply because of the language barrier.

Maria Helena Malagon, the English as a Second Language director in Montgomery County, argues that it would be wrong to withhold diplomas from students who are doing well in their classes but haven't had time to master English.

In the District, school officials also require most students with limited English to take standardized exams. But last year, they developed an additional mechanism for evaluating such students, using samples of their work during the year. Now, they hope to integrate those results into the city's system for assessing schools, principals and teachers.

These issues are being debated across the country. In California, San Francisco has gone to court to challenge a state order to test all students with limited English. In Ohio, after an outcry from Columbus and Cleveland educators, the legislature recently exempted these students from taking the tests if they have been in the country less than two years. But a test is still required to graduate.

In New York, the Board of Regents agreed to also give its tests in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Haitian-Creole. But activists are angry because they believe the state has not provided enough resources to ensure that students new to English can pass a new English test now required for graduation.

Immigrant advocates say Texas has one of the best systems, because elementary-age students are offered tests in Spanish and schools are held accountable for raising the scores of students in all racial and ethnic groups. But minority students are failing the state's graduation exam at higher rates, and a major lawsuit scheduled for trial this month is challenging the exam as discriminatory.

At Sterling Middle School, opinions on testing are decidedly mixed among the students in Diana Calderon's English as a Second Language class.

Ahsan Zaka, an eighth-grader from Pakistan, said he was "very scared because the teachers say the test is very, very hard." His classmate from Honduras, Tanya Mejia, 12, said it wasn't fair to make students take the test because "what if I don't understand it and get everything wrong?"

Calderon, who spent the summer incorporating test material into the basic English curriculum, was more optimistic. The tests, she said, are making the students study harder.

"Yes, it'll be tough. But they've gone through so much to get here, and this is just another challenge for them," she said. "My guess is these kids are going to surprise everybody."

Facing the Language Challenge

As more emphasis is placed on school performance on state standardized tests, educators are having to consider the challenges faced by the thousands of students for whom English is a second language. The chart below shows the number of students in the region with limited English proficiency:

District of Columbia 5,069

Maryland 17,282 total

Montgomery 7,987

Prince George's 4,736

Other Washington area* 1,696

Virginia 26,525 total

Fairfax 12,213

Arlington 4,078

Alexandria 1,397

Prince William 1,362

Other Washington area** 969

*Includes Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties. As of May 15, 1998

**Includes Loudoun, Stafford and Fauquier counties and Manassas, Manassas Park and Falls Church. As of Sept. 30, 1998

SOURCES: Maryland and Virginia departments of education

CAPTION: School Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech's Fairfax County schools have the Washington area's largest number of students with limited English skills.