Virginia: Tussle over English-language learners

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 31 13:55:43 UTC 2007

Tussle Over English-Language Learners

Harrisonburg, Va., officials call it unfair to require stricter reading
test for some still working on skills.

By Mary Ann Zehr

Fifth grader Any Samaria and 4th grader Maliksha Dursunov are both
classified as English-language learners, but both can confidently read
aloud in English from books at a 1st grade level. And they're quickly
picking up some of Virginias required academic skills for reading, such as
how to identify a problem in a story. Even so, the three teachers for
their reading class of beginning English-learners at Waterman Elementary
School in the heart of Virginias Shenandoah Valley oppose making the
students take the states regular reading exam at their official grade
levels, as federal officials would require. After all, Any (pronounced
AH-nee) came from Honduras only about a year ago, and Maliksha, a
Meskhetian Turk from Russia, arrived less than a year ago. The two still
struggle to speak full sentences in English.

I've seen enormous gains since the beginning of the school year, said
Carissa J. Sweigart, a 4th grade teacher for the class, but we cant expect
them to jump up all those levels of reading to understand and pass a
grade-level standardized test. So this month, the members of the
Harrisonburg City school board unanimously passed a resolution refusing to
go along with a federal demand that Virginia schools stop using an
English-language-proficiency test instead of the states regular reading
test to calculate adequate yearly progress, or AYP, for beginning
English-learners. Elsewhere in the state, the Fairfax County school board
passed a similar resolution last week and the Prince William County board
did earlier this month. The Arlington County and Fairfax City districts
are considering doing the same.

Tom Mendez, a Harrisonburg school board member and father of six, believes
the federal officials aren't taking into consideration the different paces
at which children acquire English. Bureaucracy doesn't make exceptions, he
said. We see it differently. He said it could cripple students self-esteem
and set back the learning process to make beginning English-learners take
a test they have no chance of passing. School board Chairman Michael Walsh
added that the testing requirements of the federal education law seem to
be based on the idea that children are square pegs fitting into square
holes, when, in fact, schoolchildren are diverse and not all suited to
taking the same test.

Immigrant Influx

In the past decade, Harrisonburg, which has a population of 43,500, has
become a magnet for immigrant families drawn to jobs in the poultry and
construction industries. More than 1,600 of the school districts 4,400
students are English-learners. The largest group of newcomers are Latinos,
followed by Kurdish and Russian refugees. District administrators have
responded to the influx by standardizing the curriculum for
English-language learners, hiring more English-as-a-second-language
teachers, employing bilingual parent liaisons and interpreters, and adding
classes with intensive instruction for newcomers, such as the reading
class with three teachers for 14 students at Waterman Elementary.

The city's Keister Elementary School was selected by the U.S. Department
of Education as a Blue Ribbon School in 2004. That same year, the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation chose Harrisonburg High School as one of the
nations 30 model high schools. Among the citys six schools, which all have
a large number of English-learners, only the middle school failed to make
the AYP requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act last school year.
Harrisonburg Superintendent Donald J. Ford sees it as an intrusion that
the federal government is telling Virginia school districts that they have
to change their testing policy for English-language learners, against the
advice of local educators. Mr. Ford and the school board members don't
believe that by resisting a change in policy they'll lose any of the
$980,000 in federal funds that the district receives for disadvantaged
students under Title I of the NCLB law.

I do not believe we are breaking the law, said Mr. Ford. In his view, the
district is voluntarily not trying to meet the bar set by the federal law
for participation in testing, which is 95 percent participation by all
students. Under the law, students are tested in reading and mathematics
annually in grades 3-8 and once during high school. About 250
English-learners would be affected if the district were to go along with
the federal mandate. By refusing to have all eligible students take the
test, school officials acknowledge that the district will not meet the AYP
requirements. But the same would happen if all the English-learners were
to take the regular reading test, since many would fail, Mr. Ford said.
Officials of the U.S. Department of Education didn't respond last week to a
request for comment on whether Virginia districts that refuse to change
their testing policies for English-learners are, in fact, breaking the

Mr. Ford and the school board members would rather have Harrisonburg
schools fail to meet AYP for having low testing participation than to see
the schools fail because some English-learners didn't pass the regular
reading test. He considers it as unfair and morally wrong to give students
a reading test they cant read and understand. Complex Debate The
Harrisonburg debate is complicated by the fact that some English-language
learners in the first two of four proficiency levels can read English to
some degree, though they may not yet have caught up with native
English-speaking peers. When regulations were being considered for testing
English-learners under the 5-year-old federal law, many educators said the
decision should be tied to a childs English-proficiency level.  Others
advised that students shouldn't be expected to take a grade-level test in
reading until they had attended U.S. schools for up to five years. In
September, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that
the federal government had produced final regulations requiring
English-learners to be included in regular state reading tests after they
had attended U.S. schools for a year. ("Spellings Issues Final Regulations
for Testing of English-Learners," Sept. 20, 2006.)

Harrisonburg educators generally agree with Virginias existing policy,
which is to give the regular reading test to students only at the upper
two levels of English proficiency. They applaud the school board in
resisting the federal mandate to change that policy.

Learning to Read

Had the Harrisonburg school board not voted otherwise, many of the
children in a special class for English-learners at Waterman Elementary
school would be affected this school year by the federal mandate for
Virginia schools to change how they test such students. ("States Adopt New
Tests for English-Learners," Jan. 24, 2007.) All of them are still at
Level 1 or 2 in English proficiency. Of Maliksha and Anys reading group of
five on an afternoon last week, three children have been in the United
States long enough that they would have to take the regular reading test
this school year.

During a read-aloud exercise, Any mistook the word it for I while reading
Mollys Broccoli, written by Deborah Eaton and rated at a 1st grade reading
level. She also got stuck on mole and moose, but could sound out all the
other words. On a worksheet, she correctly identified in writing the
problem in the story: Molly doesn't want to eat broccoli. Identifying a
storys problem is a concept that might appear on the states standardized
reading test for her grade. When Kristin Yoder Kauffman, an ESL teacher,
taught the word smash, Maliksha asked if it was a synonym of the verb
bump. The concept of synonyms also is something that might be assessed by
the regular reading test. But the children obviously had a lot to learn in
English. They struggled, for example, to distinguish the sh and ch sounds
in words, and were confused about whether to select am, is, or are, to
make a subject and verb agree when crafting a sentence.

Their teachers point out that the No Child Left Behind law does require
schools to give all English-language learners--no matter how long they've
been in U.S. schools--each individual states English-language-proficiency
test. They believe that requirement is appropriate, and say the results of
an English-proficiency test provide useful information about how children
are progressing. Children in the afternoon reading class here aren't ready,
though, to take the regular Virginia standardized paper-and-pencil reading
test, said Jenny R. Hartwig, the 5th grade teacher for the class. They may
understand the concept, but its not presented on the test in a way they
can pass, she said.


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