Lawsuit demands that students be tested in their native language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 6 12:47:58 UTC 2005

>>From the North County Times, Monday, June 6, 2005

Lawsuit demands that students be tested in their native language

By: LOUISE ESOLA - Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO ---- Ten school districts statewide and three nonprofit
organizations filed a lawsuit against the state Wednesday for allegedly
testing non-English-speaking students in English and then labeling them
and their schools as "failing" under the state's implementation of the
federal No Child Left Behind law. The lawsuit, filed in federal Superior
Court in San Francisco, demands that the state test its 1.6 million
non-English-speaking students in a "language and form" they understand, as
mandated in the federal education reform law.

The lawsuit is asking the state to change the way it tests students who do
not yet understand English, said Mary Hernandez, an attorney with the
Southern California-based law firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen, lawyers for
the plaintiffs. "We are asking that the state comply with federal law by
testing students in the language and the form that will most likely yield
accurate results on what they know and what they've learned," Hernandez
said during a telephone press conference out of Los Angeles on Wednesday.

No North County school districts are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit,
although Hernandez said the lawsuit represents students statewide and that
the outcome of the lawsuit could affect how all school districts gauge
skills among thousands of beginner-English students. Several local
officials said they had not reviewed the lawsuit and declined to comment.
Several others could not be reached.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires schools to show improvement
in test scores in all subcategories of students or be labeled as "failing"
and subject to sanctions that include forced student transfers, tutoring,
and, in extreme cases, government takeovers. Officials with the four firms
involved with the lawsuit said the federal mandate also allows states to
test English learners in their primary languages for three to five years
after they enroll in schools in the United States, they said.

Spanish is the primary language for 85 percent of Californias
English-learner students. Even so, California requires that all students
be tested in English only and has steadfastly refused to reword the tests
for English learners to make them easier to understand. In North County,
some school districts, such as Oceanside Unified and Escondido Union, have
roughly half of their students enrolled in beginner-English courses.

Currently, those students who do not fully understand English are handed
standardized tests in English. Some schools and districts are facing
costly federal sanctions because too many students are "falling behind" in
academic standards," advocates said. "As a result, thousands of
(non-native English-speaking) children are left behind because they cannot
demonstrate what they know (on English tests),"  Hernandez said.

California's English-only testing system is different from practices in
place in 14 states, including Texas, New Mexico and New York, which test
students in a language they understand, according to a press statement
from four law firms involved in the lawsuit. The state's take on No Child
Left Behind is a violation of both the law and the civil rights for
non-English-speaking students, the lawsuit states. The state is also
charged with wasting taxpayer money by testing students in a language they
do not yet understand, the suit also states.

The plaintiff school districts are Chula Vista Elementary School District
and Sweetwater Union High School District in San Diego County; Coachella
Valley Unified School District in Riverside and Imperial counties; Alisal
Union Elementary School District and Salinas Union High School District in
Monterey County; Terra Bella Union Elementary School District in Tulare
County; Pajaro Valley Unified School District in Santa Cruz County; Oxnard
Elementary School District in Ventura County; Hawthorne School District in
Los Angeles County; and Hayward Unified School District in Alameda County.

One of the districts, Coachella Valley Unified, has been labeled a failing
district overall because not enough students were deemed proficient on
standardized tests. Coachella Superintendent Foch "Tut" Pensis said in
Wednesday's press conference that 80 percent of his district's 16,000
students are enrolled in beginner-English programs. "We are not
educational failures," he said. "Our students perform very well once they
get the opportunity to learn the English language."

Also joining the lawsuit are three statewide nonprofit professional,
parent and civil rights advocacy organizations: The California Association
for Bilingual Education, Californians Together, and the California League
of United Latin American Citizens.

Contact staff writer Louise Esola at (760) 901-4151 or lesola at

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