Tuesday, February 20, 2007

High-immigrant schools pan No Child Left Behind rule for English learners

Zinie Chen Sampson:

Officials in some high-immigrant school districts are threatening to defy a federal law that requires all children to take the same reading tests, even those struggling to learn English.

This month, the U.S. Department of Education threatened sanctions against Virginia -- including the possibility of withholding funds -- if the state doesn't enforce the provision, which is part of the No Child Left Behind law.

The Virginia Department of Education had sought an exemption for another year, contending that the rule is unfair.

Immigrants who have been in the U.S. a short time "are simply unable to take a test written in English and produce results that are meaningful in any way," said Donald J. Ford, superintendent of the Harrisonburg city school division.

The federal government denied the state's request, saying Virginia has known about the act's guidelines for some time and have had time to prod schools into compliance.

The five-year-old federal law is scheduled to be rewritten this year, and lawmakers have said they will try to change the rules for recent immigrants and special-education students. The aim is to inject more common sense into the law while sticking with its promise to leave no child behind his or her peers.

Of Harrisonburg's 4,400 students, 39 percent are English learners, and nearly 750 of them are classified as beginners, school officials said. Most of the immigrants are Hispanic, and others are Russian and Kurdish. The Shenandoah Valley city has many immigrants who work in poultry plants.

School boards in Harrisonburg and the Washington suburbs of Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington counties have recently signaled their intent to defy the No Child Left Behind mandates, and others are considering following suit.

Those boards have passed resolutions saying they will continue to evaluate all students' reading proficiency, but will only administer the state's grade-level Standards of Learning tests to students who have an adequate grasp of English, as determined by teachers and staff. Several school divisions said they will continue using an alternate test to measure progress in non-native English speakers.

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said Virginia is "dragging its feet" and called the testing provision, the law's Standards Clause, a necessary measure to counter "the soft bigotry of low expectations." In a Feb. 4 letter to The Washington Post, Spellings said: "It's time to remember that yes, Virginia, there is a Standards Clause."

Spelling's comments incensed school division officials.

"We're all so angry," said Arlington County School Board chairwoman Libby Garvey. She called the required test a "painful and humiliating experience" for children who haven't grasped English.

Similar disagreements will arise in other states that have many students who aren't proficient in English, said Reggie Felton, lobbyist for the National School Boards Association. The association has asked that the federal education department grant each state flexibility "for real-life situations to ensure that the test is valid and reliable for each student."

In Arizona, where there are many Latino immigrants, school officials also are grappling with testing language learners.

"We believe that English language-learner students come to school with different levels of competency," said Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association. "They may not be proficient in their own language, let alone English."

The issue is part of a larger debate over the law, which seeks to have all students, regardless of race, poverty or disability, proficient in reading and mathematics by 2014.

Why “No Child Left Behind” Is Nuts

Halfway to Destination 2010, kids struggling


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