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 

Claudia Zequeira
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 
second language.

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 
been overlooked.

"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 
each student.

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 
High, agreed.

"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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