New English testing rule sets up immigrants to fail, teachers say

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Oct 2 08:06:02 UTC 2006

New English testing rule sets up immigrants to fail, teachers say

THE JOURNAL NEWS (Original Publication: October 1, 2006)

Educators are using adjectives like "catastrophic" and nouns like
"torture" to describe a new English testing requirement affecting
immigrant students. Opposition is growing to a statewide policy that will
force students with limited English to take the same reading and writing
exam as other children. In districts with high numbers of immigrants,
teachers are scrambling to get hundreds more students ready for January's
English Language Arts test for grades three to eight. That exam had been
optional for up to three years for children who were still coming up to
speed in the language. Now the exemption lasts one year. "It's
catastrophic for the self-esteem of a child who has to sit and endure a
test like this," said Eileen Santiago, principal of Thomas A.  Edison
Community School in Port Chester. "It's equivalent to educational

Critics of the change say they don't have a problem with testing; they
just want the right test used at the right stage in a child's development.
The New York state teachers union called the switch "educationally
unsound" in a letter to state Education Commissioner Richard Mills. Port
Chester and other districts are pushing for a reversal, and
superintendents in Rockland County are talking about banding together.
Some say the test only sets children up for failure. "Everyone is in
agreement," said Brian Monahan, superintendent of the North Rockland
school district. "The question is, how do we best get the commissioner's
attention and the Regents' attention?"

State officials say they are bound by a federal rule limiting the
exemption to one year. Arizona is suing the U.S. Education Department over
the issue. Pedro Ruiz, coordinator of the New York Office of Bilingual
Education and Foreign Language Studies, said the state raised questions
about the change but had to comply. At stake for New York is $1.2 million
in federal aid. During the summer, nine Rockland administrators wrote to
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spelling, asking her to imagine herself
as a 12-year-old American who moves to China and, a year later, takes the
same test for reading, writing and listening skills as Chinese-born
children.  "How appropriate will that test be for you?" the letter said.
"Will you 'meet standards'?"

Educators use a separate exam to measure a student's progress in acquiring
English as a second language, a process that usually takes four or five
years. On that test, the questions get progressively more challenging. In
contrast, the ELA is designed for students who are already fluent. It
challenges them to read up to three pages of text, summarize information
or edit a paragraph. That test won't yield a true measurement of how
limited-English students are doing, said Jessica O'Donovan, Port Chester's
director of programs for English language learners. Whether they
understand a written story, for example, could depend on whether they
happened to have learned those words yet in English, she said. They will
be allowed to look up words in a translation dictionary, but that won't
level the playing field, she said.

"This is about unfair and inappropriate assessments that are going to end
up producing invalid results," O'Donovan said. "It's setting schools up to
appear as if they're failing when they're not." Port Chester has the
highest percentage of limited-English students in Westchester County about
24 percent. Many arrive with little education even in their own language,
namely, Spanish. Those students are taught Spanish reading and writing
skills to help the transition to English. To prepare for the ELA exam,
teachers will have to focus more on Spanish language arts, O'Donovan said.
But some educators said they don't want to remodel their curriculum for a
test that serves no purpose.

"It's put us in a difficult position ethically, I think, because we want
the children to have the best kind of instruction for them," said Margaret
Dwyer, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in White
Plains. "And forcing us to teach to a test that isn't really even an
appropriate test for them is not really giving us a good option." Under
the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools must give a battery of
standard tests and track the performance of certain groups, including
those with little English. Ruiz said New York may be able to use data from
both the ELA and the proficiency test to develop a single exam that
satisfies all the federal requirements. A committee of professionals from
around the state will meet again in November or December to discuss the
issue, he said.

The irony, Dwyer said, is that the No Child Left Behind Act emphasizes
research-based instruction, but then ignores research on the length of
time required to learn a second language. About 12 percent of White Plains
students are English language learners. East Ramapo Superintendent
Mitchell Schwartz agreed that the policy "flies in the face" of research.
In the East Ramapo school district, where roughly 10 percent of the 9,100
students are classified as "limited English proficient," ESL instruction
will remain unchanged for now, said David Fried, the district's assistant
superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

Fried said he worries most about how to prepare students psychologically
for the English Language Arts test. "The last thing we want is for young
people who are working real hard to learn English to be hit with an
assessment and to get the message that we expect them to be able to
perform well on this and feel like failures when they can't," he said.


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