District students who haven't mastered English will be required to take standardized tests just like other students, with the results analyzed to see whether the school is helping all students progress, a senior school administrator said last week.
Paul Ruiz, the chief academic officer of D.C. public schools, said that many students with limited English skills had taken the tests in the past but that their scores had been set aside by sympathetic administrators and not included in school totals.
"We excluded them to do them a favor," said Ruiz, one of the system's top-ranking Latinos. But, he said, "when you exclude students, you don't pay attention to them."
From now on, 95 percent of the approximately 6,000 students in D.C. primary and high schools who are still mastering English will take the standardized tests, Ruiz said. A small subgroup just beginning to tackle English will complete a test in their own language -- roughly 600 to 1,000 youngsters, he said.
"These students have been excluded from any challenge. . . . Historically these students have been phantoms in the school system," Ruiz told a group of journalists meeting Thursday with Latino administrators in the city school system.
The changes in the testing system are occurring in part because of the federal No Child Left Behind Act signed by President Bush last year. It requires schools to test children in grades 3 to 8 and demonstrate steady improvement. If the schools fail, they risk having their principal and teachers replaced and must help their students transfer elsewhere.
The law's goal is to improve student achievement and eliminate the performance gap between white, Asian and middle-class students and lower-scoring minority and poor students.
In the past, schools were judged by their overall test scores. But under the new law, states must monitor minority, low-income, limited-English and special education students, requiring that each subgroup in a school meet certain standards. If any subgroup fails for two consecutive years to show improvement, a school is considered low-performing.
The number of language-minority children in D.C. schools has more than doubled in recent years, from 2,747 in 1988-89 to 6,204 in 1999-2000, according to a report by the Council of Latino Agencies. Almost three-quarters of them are Spanish speakers, the report said.
The new federal law has proven controversial, with some administrators and education experts saying regulations for assessing schools are arbitrary and will lead to even good schools being judged as failures.
Raul Yzaguirre, president of National Council of La Raza, said the new law's intentions were good but that the standardized tests aren't the proper tool to assess the progress of Spanish-dominant students.
"You need to differentiate between Latino kids whose primary language is Spanish, who will do horribly in standardized English format tests," and Latino students who are fluent in English, he said. He added that there were "also cultural biases in some tests that are of concern."
Linda Moody, president of the D.C. Parent-Teacher Association, said she thought language-minority students should be included in standardized testing.
"It's a way of giving us more information that will better enable us to help our children," she said. "But if they don't speak English, they don't need to be tested in English."
Ruiz said including the performance of language-minority students in the overall results would encourage the school system to pay attention to those who need extra help.
Between 1997 and 2000, there were no clear gains in reading and math achievement for D.C. Latino students who took the Stanford Achievement Tests administered in grades 3, 8 and 11, according to the Council of Latino Agencies report.