California is refusing to let students take tests in their native language. That could cause big trouble for three local school districts.
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Alejandra Franco, an 11-year-old girl who moved with her parents from Mexico to Salinas about two years ago, is remarkably expressive and outgoing, even though she is still learning a new language. With her camouflage-print cap turned sideways (apparently unconcerned about mussing her shoulder-length hair before school pictures today), she is comfortable chatting in rapid-fire, accented English. The rest of the students in her classroom at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy—all recent immigrants—seem much quieter. They write in their workbooks or play on the computers, or recite phrases along with their teacher, John Hawthorne.
The class is part of the Alisal Union School District’s “newcomer” program, which offers separate, bilingual classes for students who have lived in the United States for two years or less. Alejandra says that sometimes the new kids and the local students fight after school or at recess. But all in all, she says, the schools are better here than in Mexico. She especially likes the American junk food. “In Mexico there are no Hot Cheetos,” she says with a smile.
Like her classmates, Alejandra is worried about a big upcoming test (she pronounces the word like “text”). In May she will take the California Standards Test (CST), a rigorous language arts and math exam.
Although her primary language is Spanish, the state expects Alejandra and other second-language learners—even more-recent arrivals—to be able to take tests on any subject in English. She will take the same test that every sixth grader in the state takes.
At her former school in Michoacán, Alejandra learned simple English nouns like “chair” and “window.” This test could ask her to interpret a metaphorical poem about the phoenix, or a historical passage about Harriet Lane.
Here’s a sample question from last year’s test: “A conversation can turn into an argument in the same way that a discussion can become: A. a privilege. B. an examination. C. a debate. D. a quotation.” Tricky enough to give even a native-speaker pause—extra-challenging to a kid who is still learning the language.
Alejandra says she is not ready for the exam and dreads taking it. “Everyone knows that these tests are stupid, because they are cutting down a lot of trees, and we are going to get bad grades,” she says while nervously jostling in her seat. “I don’t want to show my mom a zero.”
Test anxiety is also being felt by teachers and administrators, who are under pressure to raise exam scores.
For the third straight year, the federal government is sanctioning Martin Luther King Jr. Academy under No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The law requires that all students, including English learners, show an increasing level of proficiency in math and reading. Schools and school districts that don’t meet the goals for two years straight are put in a category known as “program improvement.” That can result in incremental penalties. If any group of MLK students falls below the benchmark again, the school could see its staff fired and replaced. Management of the school could be outsourced. Ultimately it could mean takeover by the state.
The Alisal school district contends that the testing of its English learners has put eight out of 12 of its schools in the “program improvement” category. The East Salinas elementary district is not alone.
Alisal and nine other California school districts, including Salinas Union High School and Pajaro Valley Unified School District, are suing the state, demanding that they be allowed to test English learners in Spanish. If successful, the suit could dramatically change how the state assesses nearly a quarter of its students. The outcome of the lawsuit also has heavy implications for Monterey County.
In all the county’s biggest school districts, the test scores of English Learners lag behind the rest of the students. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit say the tests measure how much English the students know, not how well they can read, write, and do math.
David Pribyl, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Alisal district, says these students are much smarter than the test scores show.
“When tested in their primary language they test above the national average in both reading and math,” Pribyl says. “It’s not reasonable that someone who is just learning a second language would be able to compete with a native speaker within a year or two.”
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Last week, state Senator Denise Ducheny presented her third English learner bill to the Senate’s Education Committee. The bill is meant to settle the lawsuit by forcing the state to test students who aren’t English proficient in their native language.
To the San Diego Democrat, the logic is simple: “If you want to test the academic knowledge of the students…do it in a language the students are actually literate in.”
Ducheny’s previous bills divided Republicans and Democrats. Both bills made it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk—only to meet his veto.
The Republican governor said in his 2006 veto message that the bill runs counter to the goal of getting students fluent in English as quickly as possible.
Ducheny says the governor misinterpreted her bill. A Spanish test, she says, wouldn’t take away from students’ English advancement. “All we are saying with this is while they are learning English, test them in a language they understand so you can know what their academic knowledge is,” she says.
With no legislative remedy in sight, the 10 school districts, the biggest of which are in Ducheny’s legislative district, filed their lawsuit in June 2005. Joining them as plaintiffs are three Latino advocacy groups—the California Association for Bilingual Education, Californians Together, and the California League of Unified Latin American Citizens.
The state, intent on maintaining the status quo, is now trying to get the suit dismissed. On April 23, a judge will decide whether the case proceeds. The trial is set to begin at the end of May.
Marc Coleman, the Long Beach attorney who represents the plaintiffs, says the state’s resistance to test English Learners in Spanish is political. “This is not about what’s best for the kids,” he says. “This is about the state’s doxology of ‘English at any cost.’ ”
The lawsuit claims that the state’s testing practices violate the federal No Child Left Behind law [NCLB]. That law requires states to test English learners in a “valid and reliable manner,” and access them “in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on what such students know…until such students have achieved English language proficiency.” NCLB allows English learners to take tests in their primary language for three years, with the possibility of a two-year extension.
Other states have taken advantage of the provision. Nine states offer primary language testing. Coleman admits that the US Department of Education has given final approval for the alternative tests in only three states: Colorado, Texas and Delaware. But, he says, the examples show that primary language testing is legally possible.
In fact, California already tests students in Spanish. English learners take a Spanish exam called the Aprenda 3. Starting this May, the state will test second through fourth grade students with a new primary language test, the Standards-based Test in Spanish (STS). But these tests results won’t show up on any report card.
California has more second-language learners than any other state—1.6 million—yet it only uses standardized tests in English to measure state performance and federal progress. This goes for all English learners, including those whose parents opted for native-language instruction and students brand new to US schools.
It takes between five and seven years to learn a language, educators say. But the state expects newcomer students to pass English tests after one year in US schools.
“It is unquestionable that the most effective way of testing those kids who are instructed in Spanish is using a Spanish-language test,” Coleman says. “I think it’s a failed educational approach to the Spanish-speaking and immigrant population. It reflects an unwillingness to adequately provide for these youngsters.”
The defendants in the lawsuit, state Board of Education and the California Department of Education, argue that a Spanish test would inhibit second language learners from becoming English proficient as quickly as their peers. They say English learner test scores are improving.
In court filings last month, the agencies say primary language tests would hinder school districts from knowing how their second language students compare to the rest of the school. This, the state says, would make it harder for schools to close the achievement gap, which is the whole point of NCLB.
“Allowing those who need the most help to be tested with different or lower standards and be labeled proficient would mislead students’ parents and schools about actual grade level proficiency,” the Board of Education says in its brief. “The appropriate remedy for ineffective instruction is improved instruction, not less-valid tests that measure different skills than intended.”
The state agencies also say that California would have to develop a primary language test that meets national standards under NCLB, something other states have struggled to do.
In 2002, the Board of Education shied away from developing such a test. An expert panel advised the board that an alternative test was not a pressing need, considering that not all students are proficient in their native language, and 90 percent of second language learners receive instruction solely in English. Plus, Spanish is not the only primary language spoken in California schools. Developing one special test could disadvantage students who are native in other languages.
Spanish, however, is the primary language of 85 percent of the state’s English learners. About 37 percent of Monterey County students were English learners last year. In the Alisal district that proportion nearly doubles.
Supporters of Ducheny’s bill say giving a Spanish test option to that many students is a good place to start. Her bill would not apply to all English learners, but only to those who demonstrate literacy in their primary language, receive non-English instruction or have been in state school for less than three consecutive years.
Ducheny says the unfair tests subject schools with a high proportion of Spanish speakers to federal sanctions. If a second language learner gets a low test score, she insists, it doesn’t mean they aren’t learning the material. “It doesn’t tell you anything except that the student doesn’t know English.”
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John Hawthorne drops a handful of No. 2 pencils into a coffee cup. He sits behind his desk at Martin Luther King Jr., which doubles as a private study table. Students mill outside his classroom. He motions his hand for them to come and use his computers while they wait for the bus.
The students are bussed from other parts of East Salinas. The Alisal district concentrates newcomers in grades three through six together at MLK. The 160 “newcomer” students are all Latino immigrants, the vast majority from Mexico.
Due to the spring crop harvest, this is the time of year when Hawthorne’s classroom size expands. The school gave him four new kids in the last two weeks. His latest arrival is a quiet, freckle-faced fifth grader named Alan Pulido. His family just immigrated from Morelia, Mexico.
Hawthorne says he will do his best to improve the new students’ English skills. But he says that because Mexican schools aren’t on par with California institutions, most students come to him several grade levels behind in reading and writing.
Hawthorne is among those who believe it’s unfair that, after one year, the state assesses his students with a grueling English test like the CST.
“They are three years behind grade level by the time they take that test,” he says. “They shouldn’t be punished because they are learning a second language.”
Most of MLK’s newcomers probably don’t get much English practice outside of school. Their parents speak Spanish as do their neighbors in East Salinas.
Margarita Silva, a fourth and fifth grade teacher in the newcomer program, says the parents of her students may not even be able to help their kids with their Spanish homework. “Some of them don’t know how to read in their native language,” she points out, “so there is no way they can help these students at home.”
In early March, Silva gave her fourth graders an English writing test mandated by the state. She says some of her students couldn’t read the test instructions, let alone write thorough responses. “They had no idea what they had in front of them,” Silva says. “All they did was put their name and guess.”
Silva relates well to her students tribulations because she is also a Mexican immigrant. She says some students are up to challenge of learning English and will persevere. At the same time, Silva says, other students internalize the notion that they are incapable of passing a test, and eventually drop out of school.
Students at MLK have other obstacles besides language to overcome. The school is located at the intersection of North Sanborn Road and Acosta Plaza, a poor and dense neighborhood plagued by gang violence. Gangsters or wannabes consistently tag school buildings.
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Vice Principal Ramiro Reyes pulls out a pink sign that sums up how students really feel during testing. It reads: “Quite Disturbed, Do Not Test.”
Many of his students at MLK are taking the Aprenda 3 Spanish test today. This exam is just the beginning of spring testing season. Reyes pulls out a standardized testing deadline sheet. It’s filled with mandatory teacher trainings, pretests, tests and then more tests.
It seems like almost everything the school does revolves around exams.
The materials, Reyes says, are out of touch with what his students are dealing with at home, such as overcrowding and poverty. It’s hard for his students to relate to test-prep passages on subjects like mountaineering, he says.
“These kids have serious issues and we are expecting them to learn about a guy who climbs Mt. Everest,” Reyes says.
The premise of No Child Left Behind is that even immigrant kids in poor neighborhoods like this should be 100-percent proficient in reading and math by 2014. Pretty much everyone considers this an unrealistic goal.
Educators were quick to criticize the 2002 law as an unfunded mandate, but now lawmakers are chiming in. Last month, more than 50 Republican lawmakers nationwide introduced bills that would allow their states to opt out of NCLB altogether. Other legislators have proposed cutting more slack for immigrant students. Still, Congress is expected to reauthorize President George W. Bush’s hallmark law this year.
Pribyl says the Alisal district wants to hold its students accountable, but the federal benchmarks aren’t an accurate measure. He points out that the district is meeting state performance goals, known as the Academic Performance Index (API), which set a standard for test-score improvement against a base score. The district, he says, doesn’t deserve to be labeled as a failure.
“There is no growth model with the federal government version,” Pribyl says. “Their measurements only care about the finish line.” Even if NCLB doesn’t change, he says, a Spanish test would help Alisal students improve their test scores.
Reyes says his students can’t be expected to take the same test as affluent white kids. “There is no level playing field at all, so why should the tests be the same?” he says.
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Alejandra shades in the hair of her cousin Adelin with a pencil. She and half of her classmates are drawing pictures of their relatives while another group practices family vocabulary with Hawthorne.
She just spent 20 minutes doing an English language program on a laptop. Wrinkling her brow and pointing to her temple, Alejandra says her head hurts from the lesson. She says the five-hour CST in May will give her an even bigger headache.
“If they do the test in English, I don’t want to come,” she says.
Alejandra says she is looking forward to being in regular English classes in middle school. She will attend La Paz Middle School, which is just up North Sanborn Road from MLK.
“I think when I am in middle school…at that time I can do the test in English.”
The students break for lunch and Alejandra runs to catch up with her friends. The courtyard is sunny and warm. Students chat while their teachers lead them to the cafeteria.
The school is covered in green tiles. It has a big playground and a dirt track that it shares with neighboring Jesse G. Sanchez Elementary School. MLK also has a large garden; thanks to a grant, a nutrition instructor teaches kids about the importance of eating fruits and veggies—and even how to grow them.
In addition, the Big Sur Land Trust frequently takes students from Hawthorne’s and other classes out to Marks Ranch to explore nature.
As Hawthorne’s students make their way into the cafeteria, he says middle school won’t be easy for his sixth graders.
“If I have a kid for two years,” he says, “I have a pretty good chance to get that student up to fourth grade level reading.”
In his seven years of teaching newcomer students, he has only heard anecdotal stories of academic success. Students who go to La Paz Middle School, Hawthorne says “will have a fighting chance” because the staff provides a lot of support to English learners.
But Hawthorne says he has faith that all of his students can go on to graduate high school if they stick to their studies.
“A lot of it depends on personality,” he says. “If they are tenacious, perseverant and have a supportive family, they’ll be fine.”