Legislators from the Washington suburbs, home to three of every four of Virginia's immigrant students, scolded the state administration today for applying tough testing standards to thousands of pupils already struggling with weak English skills.
"Rigor can very easily lead to inflexibility," said Del. Robert H. Brink, a Democrat from Arlington County, where hundreds of young people with serious English problems attend public school.
Brink, and other colleagues on a special state commission beginning to study the education of students with limited English proficiency, called on senior advisers to Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to find more creative ways to accommodate those students and their families, perhaps by easing the Standards of Learning testing requirements.
Kirk T. Schroder, the state Board of Education president appointed by Gilmore, defended the current learning standards, saying he was determined to accommodate children who need help meeting requirements for language skills while preserving the integrity of tests for Virginia's 1.1 million students.
"All of us are trying in good faith to find out where the balance is," Schroder said.
But Democratic lawmakers from around the Beltway, who have seen their hometown school services strained by an ever-growing influx of youngsters with English problems, said even reduced testing requirements could still unfairly hold back some children.
"Those still may be inappropriate ways to judge," said veteran Del. Marian Van Landingham (D-Alexandria), who chairs the joint legislative Commission on English as a Second Language.
Added Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington): "Even if there's only one test to take, it doesn't mean they know English that well."
The Van Landingham commission is just getting to the heart of its work, but it could eventually recommend increased spending on English programs, changes in education policies or changes in the way students are tested.
Grace Rissetto, a Falls Church teacher and past president of an association of English language supervisors, suggested to the panel today that it could recommend policy changes to grant credit for courses passed in native countries; offer extended school terms in after-school and summer sessions; and provide credit for portions of core courses that immigrant students had passed.
Northern Virginia has more than 75 percent of the state's students with English problems--more than 17,000, with 12,213 in Fairfax County and 4,078 in Arlington County, according to 1998 data, the most recent available.
Testing problems can be acute in rural Virginia, where huge counties such as Pittsylvania, which is larger than Rhode Island, have migrant worker communities served by only a handful of English experts, according to testimony today.
"Migrants are silent people," said Veronica L. Donahue, who coordinates one rural education program.
But, she added, "these are not hypothetical children."
CAPTION: Del. Marian Van Landingham chairs the joint legislative Commission on English as a Second Language.