Binghamton, NY: School officials oppose new rule for English test

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Jan 13 14:16:45 UTC 2007

School officials oppose new rule for English test Change called 'horribly
unfair' for many students

By George Basler Press & Sun-Bulletin

BINGHAMTON -- Jibril Hassan admitted being anxious going into the New York
English Language Arts test this week. Not only did the 10-year-old native
of Somalia have to cope with the test, he had to do it in a language
that's not his native tongue. "I was nervous. I didn't want to fail," said
the third-grader at Binghamton's Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. The
Binghamton youngster thinks he did OK on the three-day test that ended
Thursday. But a new rule that applies to students still learning English
is creating controversy this year, with some educators arguing the rule
sets thousands of students across New York state up for failure.

Under pressure from the federal government, New York ordered all students
who speak limited English and have been in U.S schools for at least a year
to take the regular state ELA test regardless of their level of
proficiency. The change began with this week's test. Previously, students
with less than three years of U.S. schooling were exempt from the ELA
test, which is used to gauge whether students and schools are making
adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Instead, they could take a different test: the New York State English as a
Second Language Test. The new rule is "horribly unfair," Franklin
Principal Noreen Dolan said.  Put yourself in the place of a student with
limited English speaking skills, she said. Imagine how you'd feel if you'd
moved to Russia and after a year had to take a state test on the Russian

The policy change affects some 60,000 students statewide, said Maria
Neira, vice president of New York State United Teachers, which strongly
opposes the change. "We know these students are going to fail," said
Neira, noting research shows it takes four to seven years for newly
arrived students to become proficient in English. But federal officials
ruled the alternative test wasn't comparable to the regular state exam and
couldn't substitute for it. And, so far, they're not budging, Neira said.
The Southern Tier district most affected by the change is the Binghamton
City School District, which has the region's largest enrollment of
students who speak English as a second language. They come from a variety
of countries, including Somalia, Bosnia, Russia, Laos, Haiti and Iraq.

About 4.9 percent of Binghamton's students, or 290 students, are
classified as English Language Learners, said Robert Darcangelo, director
of attendance and pupil services. These students are in regular classes,
but receive intensive English instruction for a certain number of minutes
per day. The state policy change means that fewer than 5 percent of the
district's ELL students are now exempt from the state's English Language
Arts test, Darcangelo said. This upsets some teachers, although they
acknowledge most ELL students were already sitting for the regular state
test. "I have a student who came here at the beginning of last year from
central Africa where both parents were slain. She had no prior schooling
but is now taking the English Language Arts exam. Is that fair?" said
Laura Teuchtler, an English as a Second Language teacher at Binghamton's
Woodrow Wilson Elementary School.

School officials note these students' performance will be factored into a
school's overall test results that are used to judge a school's
performance under No Child Left Behind. "There has to be some impact,"
said Mary Cahill, Binghamton's assistant superintendent for instruction.
This will especially be the case in schools such as East Middle School,
where the district "clusters" ELL students. But students seem to take the
change in stride, Dolan said. "The kids were oblivious to our
frustration," she said. Initial reports from teachers are that the ELL
students did fairly well on the test, she added.

Two questions on the test were hard, but otherwise he thinks he did well,
Jibril said. "I didn't feel that nervous," said Zhiman Doski, 10, whose
native language is Kurdish. Meanwhile, state Education Commissioner
Richard Mills sent out a memo in late December emphasizing the state
Education Department and Board of Re-gents remain opposed to the policy
change. "We believe many ELL students need at least three years to learn
sufficient English to take the ELA test," Mills said. The state has been
in contact with federal officials and will continue to fight for a change
in federal policy, he added.


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