Test rates kids' gains in English
Francis M. Hult
fmhult at dolphin.upenn.edu
Mon Aug 28 01:33:34 UTC 2006
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Test rates kids' gains in English
Sentinel Staff Writer
August 27, 2006
Florida education officials are rolling out a new test Monday to track the
progress of more than 200,000 students trying to master English as their
Administrators think the test, which will replace other exams used by school
districts, will make it easier to compare student performance from one county
to the next. But the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment test,
as the exam is called, has an added advantage, they say.
By next school year, CELLA will be used to determine whether schools are
meeting standards under the federal No Child Left Behind law, holding
districts more accountable for the performance of students who many feel have
"This is going to create uniformity and give us better data," said Tomasita
Ortiz, director of multilingual-student education services for Orange County
Public Schools. "It's a tremendous task to accomplish, but in the long run
it's going to imply higher expectations and raising the bar."
More than 50 percent of English-language learners in Florida were born in the
United States, including the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Spanish and Haitian
Creole are the most common languages, but students here speak more than 200
languages, according to some studies.
Until now, the Florida Department of Education allowed districts to choose
from among 20 tests for gauging the language skills of these children. At
least three exams were used in Central Florida districts.
Scores on those tests were kept by the state but not compared, and districts
were not penalized for poor results. That, in effect, made the reading portion
of the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test the single most important
measure by the state to judge how well these children were learning.
No Child Left Behind uses FCAT scores to determine whether students are
making "adequate yearly progress" toward proficiency in reading. But the FCAT
scores alone could not explain why English learners had problems.
"FCAT doesn't measure language acquisition; it measures content," said Amy
Bratten, a teacher-resource specialist who helped train staff to administer
CELLA in Polk County. "Now we can see exactly why and how we didn't make AYP
and learn how to remediate that."
But the benefits of the new test come with strings attached.
For one, the test requires significant manpower and time to administer, with
some districts estimating it will take at least two and a half hours to test
In Central Florida, where about 62,000 students will be tested, many fear they
will be overstretched as they launch the month-long testing blitz, shifting
teachers to test and impart lessons at the same time.
"This is going to be massive," said Dalia Medina, coordinator of the Osceola
County district's multicultural department. "A lot of it has to do with the
fact some of these testing sessions have to be done one-on-one."
Medina said her department will use at least 100 staff members and numerous
teachers to accomplish the task of testing 10,000 students over the testing
Another consequence is that better accountability can have costs.
Schools that receive federal funds to help poor students can be penalized if
they fail over several years to make adequate yearly progress under No Child
Left Behind. The law can force schools to redirect spending and change staff,
among other things.
The $40 million Florida districts receive annually for services to immigrants
and English learners under the federal Title III also are at stake. Districts
could lose out on grants if they fail to show improvement for four consecutive
As the state sets targets for improvement during the current school year, some
educators are worried.
"Schools may be negatively impacted if the kids don't meet whatever standards
are expected," said Joanne Urrutia, an administrator with the Division of
Bilingual Education and World Languages programs in Miami-Dade County. "In the
same way FCAT did . . . eventually, if we don't perform, there'll be more
But Urrutia also views the added pressure as useful in making sure English-
language learners are not forgotten.
"Data is not a bad thing. You can't just sit back and say, 'Oh, poor things, I
don't think they can pass this test.' . . . Now, this is making these kids
everybody's kids. That's a positive"
Abigail Santiago, whose son and stepson will be taking the test at Osceola
"A lot of students, because of their maturity level, don't realize how
important [learning English] is for their futures," said Santiago, of
Kissimmee. "If the student is told a test is important, they'll start paying
attention and improve those scores."
Officials say they will be able to compare students' progress in learning
English across districts.
Claudia Zequeira can be reached at czequeira at orlandosentinel.com or 407-931-
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