Virginia's Board of Education adopted the state's first uniform standards for immigrant students with limited English skills yesterday, a step toward bringing the state's teaching and testing of such students in line with the new federal No Child Left Behind law.
The standards place such students into four categories, defining increasingly difficult skills that students should learn at each level. The law requires states to adopt standards to help guide students with limited English proficiency (LEP) toward speaking, listening, reading and writing the language.
"We'll have a common standard for talking about our LEP students," said Carol Lisi, director of the English as a Second Language Programs (ESL) for Alexandria schools. Lisi was on the state advisory committee that helped develop the standards. "We can't really compare notes about what works if we don't know if we're talking about the same students," Lisi said.
Under Virginia's new standards, the lowest level describes students with enough English skills to do such things as give two-word replies to simple questions and follow written words left to right and top to bottom on a page. The highest describes students who can speak understandably using standard grammar and read and understand fiction and nonfiction.
Lisi said school districts with a long-established curriculum for such students are not required to change their course work to reflect the new standards. But she said the ability to group and define LEP students in the same ways statewide will help educators share teaching methods.
State Board of Education President Mark C. Christie said the standards support the board's goals of moving ESL students quickly into mainstream classrooms by setting clear goals for their progress.
"This will help bring them into English proficiency as quickly and effectively as possible," he said.
But some local educators expressed concern that the state is moving too quickly to adopt final standards.
Francisco Millet, director of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) programs for Fairfax schools, said he has offered repeated critiques of the new guidelines, urging the state to adopt preliminary standards now to accommodate the new federal law but reexamine them later.
"They're doing the right thing in adopting LEP standards, just as they're required to do. Where we're really not doing the best we can do is by committing to a group of standards that may or not be appropriate for schools and students," Millet said.
In particular, Millet said he worries that the skills required at each level are too basic. If the standards are later tied to state funding, he said, they could lead to students being declared proficient in English -- and channeled out of ESL classes -- too soon.
"Most of our kids will be in the upper levels [of the standards] or will not qualify for ESOL programs . . . and they will no longer have services available. That is a serious concern," he said.
Roberta Schlicher, ESL specialist for the Virginia Department of Education, said the standards are meant as minimum guidelines, and local districts are free to require more before moving students into mainstream classrooms.
In Arlington County, where more than one-fourth of the students are classified as having limited skills in English, officials are concerned that the state standards could trump local practices proven effective over time -- especially as the state moves next month to adopt a list of tests school systems can use to measure students' English skills. By spring, Virginia will field-test a new English proficiency exam developed with other states.
"The development of tests is not that easy. We are asking that the tests that we have developed locally that are valid, that we can continue to use them," said Emma Violand-Sanchez, ESOL supervisor for Arlington schools.
Schlicher said the state will allow school systems to apply to keep their locally designed tests.
The adoption of the standards comes as Virginia and other states wrestle with much larger questions for non-English speakers posed by the No Child Left Behind law. Most daunting, several officials said, is that states must remove exemptions for such students from their yearly standardized testing programs.
In Virginia, students who have just arrived in the country have been allowed a one-time exemption from taking the state-mandated Standards of Learning Exams in 3rd, 5th and 8th grades; the exemption does not apply in high school. In Maryland last year, students were tested only if they had been in the system at least two years.
Now all students who have attended school for a full academic year will be tested on the state curriculum in math and reading. The law allows states to develop an alternative test for students who have difficulty with English.
Schlicher said she is working with the U.S. Department of Education to figure out how the program might work in Virginia -- but believes that, whatever is decided, some kind of testing for LEP students must begin next spring.
In Maryland, all students will take the state's new standardized test, said Frank Edgerton, the state's specialist for foreign and second language learning.
"If they came into our country on Friday, and we're testing on Monday, they'll take those tests on Monday," he said. "The expectation is that some students will have an extremely difficult time."
States are waiting for the publication of federal regulations to guide testing of LEP students, said John Segota, advocacy and government relations manager for the national group Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.