Imagine for a moment that you relocated your family to Japan two years ago, and your elementary school-age child came home with his or her best grade ever on a science test — one that was still lower than his or her Japanese-born and raised classmate and best friend. Would you be disappointed? Would you want to pull your child out of that school?
Our guess is most would realize their child was making major academic strides after an initial struggle to pick up a second language, thanks to competent, caring teachers and communities.
This is the logic behind the state Superintendent of Public Schools Tom Horne’s attempt to hold the federal Department of Education to an unwritten agreement he says was reached three years ago, which permitted the state to set aside English learners’ test scores for their first three years in the system while deciding if schools are making “adequate yearly progress” under the No Child Left Behind law.
This is a federal law that gives states the job, within certain parameters, of handing out these critical passing labels. Schools that fail repeatedly to earn these could lose control of their funding or even their operations, and any time spent as a “failing” campus can make a bad situation worse by driving away the quality teachers needed to turn things around.
The other 49 states are required to include ELL students’ scores after a year, though they can set up an appeals process for individual schools.
Under Horne’s oral agreement, Arizona was giving an automatic exemption to schools during their first three years of instructing non-English proficient students, who must be tested in English under a voter-approved state law.
Regardless of the sketchiness of the Horne’s deal with the federal government, it seems to be a reasonable one. Schools in Arizona, or anywhere else for that matter, should not be punished so harshly for not being able to bring English-learning students to an academic level that’s difficult or impossible to reach.
A federal Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday found students with limited English proficiency scored lower than annual progress goals in two-thirds of 48 states studied, and the validity of the testing in at least 25 of those states was questionable.
Applying the three-year standard across the board would be far fairer to the other states, but it appears that Arizona English language learners are doing relatively well, even if their schools were held to a higher standard.
According to an analysis done for Ryan Gabrielson’s July 25 Tribune story about Horne’s lawsuit, adding most ELL scores to the mix would double the percentage of Arizona’s 1,800 schools not making adequate yearly progress, from 12 percent to 24 percent. Meanwhile, about 40 percent of California schools, working under a similar law mandating all students be tested in English and including English learners after one year, get the federal “failing” label.
The U.S. Department of Education seems to realize some adjustments need to be made, though there’s no indication yet that federal officials will be pulling back from requiring ELL students to be tested after one year. The day after the GAO report was released, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced the formation of an “LEP Partnership” which will work first with about 20 states whose testing for limited-English proficient students has not met with full federal approval. The department hasn’t disclosed which states fall into this category.
And while we believe Horne is right to exclude newly-arrived students’ scores while determining if a school’s made adequate yearly progress, there does need to be more public statewide discussion about how all English language learners, now 15 percent of our student population, can get the most effective education possible.