Evidence of growing unease over testing English Language Learners came to a head this past school year in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. It started when Superintendent Jack D. Dale wanted his district's ELLs to be tested fairly for their English proficiency and not under the federal No Child Left Behind standards. Dale thought these standards required testing his student newcomers too soon after arriving in the United States.
One out of three students in the system speaks one of more than 120 different languages at home. Hailing from dozens of countries, many of the district's beginning ELLs receive special services, which are integrated into their classroom experience to help them learn English at a logical pace for their burgeoning abilities. Meanwhile,NCLB mandates and resulting exams for students who have only been in the country for less than two years are unfair to students and foster a climate of fear, Dale says. Dale and fellow educators statewide believe it takes longer than a year to gain profi ciency in a foreign language at grade level.
Dale defied NCLB requirements in testing the district's recent immigrant students in English. Last year, the district used a stateapproved exam, a reading subtest of the Stanford English Language Proficiency test (SELP), which measured how well its ELLs, in their first and second years in the country, could read, write and speak English. But the exam didn't show how well ELLs could perform at grade level, as NCLB requires. "Virginia Department of Education, which supports us, developed a testing protocol which would be flexible for kids," says Dale. The protocol is based on how to test students without being "an anxiety producing event for kids," he adds. Virginia school officials proposed using an alternative portfolio assessment, or a student's work, to demonstrate the reading ability of beginning level English speakers and to reveal that the student has met grade level standards.
Right to Use a Different Exam
Last December, Virginia educators lobbied the U.S. Department of Education for the right to use SELP in the spring of 2007, which the state had been using for several years, and to allow for more time to create a reading test for spring 2008. Seven districts across the state and 16 states joined Dale's pursuit. However, the federal government denied the use of their proxy test for ELLs. Instead, the government mandated that they administer the same ESL test to all such learners under NCLB mandates. So in March, five representatives and Virginia's senators, John Warner and Jim Webb, introduced a bill that would affect all U.S. schools:
"Only when students are deemed sufficiently proficient in English will states be required to adhere to the Title I provisions and administer the federally approved grade level reading test," the bill stated. "This emergency revision of the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act is effective only until full re-authorization of ESEA is completed."
The bill asked the Education Department to let the Fairfax district go another year using its own exam. Dale and others from the district wrote to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings asking for a waiver to continue using the reading subtest of SELP for one year while the state worked on another alternative to its Standards of Learning reading test for students in the first two of four levels of English acquisition.
But in April, Fairfax County school officials backed down. The bill had been defeated and the federal government had threatened to withhold some $17 million in aid to the district. The result was that students would take the original test and be able to stop when questions became too difficult. The tests would be given to all ELLs in the system for more than a year-at grade level-as the
Education Department uses the test as a barometer for determining how well schools teach English as a Second Language. Despite defeat, Dale says his fight was not all for naught. "The good news is it has raised the inadequacies of NCLB to a higher level," Dale says. "We've empowered students and parents to say, 'It's OK to say no.' It's really been a rallying point."
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a freelance writer based in Boston.