New York: Immigrant Children Shielded From State Tests, but for Whose Protection?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Dec 27 15:58:27 UTC 2006

NYTimes, December 27, 2006
On Education

Immigrant Children Shielded From State Tests, but for Whose Protection?


Put your pencils down! Yannyn Suarez commanded her third-grade
English-as-second-language class. Eyes on me! Sit up straight! She began
telling a story about a boy named Kirby who could not find the gym shoes
he needed for the big game. The story ended happily. When Kirbys dog,
Buster, scrambled off his dog bed, there, to Kirbys delight, were the
shoes. The third graders, all from Latino immigrant families though some
were born in the United States, listened with the nervous intentness of
children practicing for the first make-or-break test of their young lives,
the New York State English language arts test. One portion assesses the
ability to listen and remember details without seeing the text, so when
the teacher read the story a second time, the students took notes. But not
all notes were of the same caliber. Israel Arellano, a squirmy 8-year-old
with a crew cut, was able to take polished notes with just one
misspelling: Kirby lost his gym shoes and was sad because he had a
champinship, he wrote in neat lowercase.

Dayana Ceja, a more earnest 8-year-old with a flawless ponytail, took
notes that were far more disjointed. Kirby Shouse Mom Dad Gym, she wrote.
School officials in this working-class village tucked between the wealthy
towns of Rye, N.Y., and Greenwich, Conn., would rather that neither Dayana
nor Israel, both of whom were born in the United States, take the English
test when it is given statewide on Jan. 8. They say they do not want such
children to be embarrassed by their scores. But they also do not want
those scores to embarrass the village. Theirs is a district where 90
percent of fourth graders score well enough to be regarded as proficient
readers. That statistic helps the district attract well-heeled transplants
from New York City. But that statistic is also not a true reflection of
the district because so many students from immigrant homes have been
exempted from taking the test, even if they were born in this country. The
districts policy, which state law allows, has been to spare children from
immigrant families from taking the test if they have been in the school
system less than five years. That excludes about 15 percent of Port
Chesters elementary school students and 10 percent of middle-school
students. And so those students have been taking easier substitute tests.

Then last June, the United States Department of Education, enforcing the
No Child Left Behind law, deemed New Yorks substitutes inadequate and
required all students in school for more than a year to take regular
tests. Tests in 21 other states face have similarly been challenged. That
was bad news for Port Chester. Officials here now predict that when the
January scores are published, the proportion of proficient students will
drop into the 70s. They worry that their schools will be branded in need
of improvement and suffer penalties. They worry that prospective
homebuyers may opt for other towns. And they worry about the students
self-confidence. That poor child is going to have to sit through a test
that is completely developmentally inappropriate and feel a sense of
anxiety and failure, said Jessica ODonovan, Port Chesters director of
programs for English language learners.

Those concerns explain why officials here joined with those in Tarrytown,
Ossining and other suburban districts with large immigrant populations to
prevent so-called English language learners like Dayana and Israel from
taking the test. The members of the State Board of Regents were
sympathetic. For someone who has been in this country a year, the chances
of passing are almost nonexistent so its destructive of a kids self-image,
Harry Phillips III, a regent, said in an interview. But the Regents Board
members ultimately decided that they could not disobey federal law. State
officials, however, are asking that when federal officials rate schools,
they not count the January test scores of those students who have been in
American schools for less than two years.

THERE are few issues in education more complicated and politically charged
than the education of immigrant children whether they should be immersed
in English or placed in more gradual bilingual classes, and whether they
should be tested in the same way as their non-immigrant peers. There are
strong arguments to be made that five years may be too long to exempt
immigrant students from taking mainstream tests but that one year may be
too short. Perhaps someone like Dayana, whose parents speak no English and
cannot help with schoolwork, should be exempted. But perhaps Israel, who
has older siblings fluent in English, should be encouraged to dip into the
mainstream, not just on tests but also in the classes to which he is
assigned. Forcing every immigrant to take a grade-level English test after
one year in this country can be callous. Perhaps a 6- or 7-year-old can
slip into a new language in a years time, but experts say older children
may take years to feel secure.

Catherine Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education
who specializes in language development, points out that tests given to
immigrant children who enter American schools late, say in middle school,
put them at a particular disadvantage because they do not have the same
cultural references as their classmates. On the other hand, some educators
think younger students from immigrant families should be given mainstream
tests sooner, just as they should be placed in mainstream classes sooner
where they can be exposed to more rigorous course work and fluent English
speakers. The question is how we use the information, said Pedro Noguera,
professor of sociology at Steinhardt School of Education at New York
University. If were going to use it to penalize schools, were going to
create disincentives for schools to want to serve needy children. He
worries that schools, fearful of lower rankings, may discourage some
immigrants with from enrolling.

Many schools like to play an exemption game removing from the totals the
scores of children who are, say, poor or have learning disabilities. But
postponing tests for immigrant children for five years conceals from
parents and from schools themselves whether students are improving or not.
Think of this as a parent, said Chad Colby a United States Department of
Education spokesman. You have a child who starts kindergarten and then
theyre still in school at the end of fourth grade, and thats the first
time youre going to be held accountable for an education? Like Mr.
Noguera, Diane Ravitch, the education historian, says she thinks testing
students after one year may not be a bad idea, but is concerned about how
the scores are used. Comparing this years Port Chester fourth graders with
last years based on the upcoming test will put this years students and the
schools needlessly to shame because last years classes did not have many
immigrant children tested. But comparing how well students do this school
year with how those same students do a year later, Ms. Ravitch said, would
provide a telling reflection of the schools progress. The federal
government has started a pilot program in such so-called growth model
comparisons in Tennessee and North Carolina.

What many experts seem to agree on is that No Child Left Behind testing
policy lacks a fine enough filter for the nuances of immigrant education.
A more calibrated policy one that can distinguish between a Dayana and an
Israel, for example would allow Port Chester to figure out more
intelligently how well it is doing. As the system is now, many Port
Chester students who have worked hard to master English may feel deflated
by next years test results. Kristin Favale, who teaches a bilingual third
grade class, said some students who have been here little more than a year
would struggle with the tests vocabulary and phrasing. The test will not
show the progress theyve made in one year, she said.

E-mail: joeberg at


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