By Kristina Wells
January 19, 2007
You’re 10 years old. Your family relocates to Spain. You don’t know the language. A year goes by and now you’re being tested on how well you write and understand Spanish.
How you score on the test could mean a failing grade for your school, which means it could lose funding.
Far-fetched? Not as much as you would think.
It’s happening to foreign-language kids in New York who, this week, are taking a mandated English test after spending only a year immersed in the language. This new federal rule, under the No Child Left Behind Act, affects roughly 60,000 students statewide. And everyone from parents to teachers to state Education Commissioner Richard Mills is crying foul.
“We have a federal government that’s being a bully,” said Maria Neira, vice president of the New York State United Teachers union. “This unfair assessment identifies them as failures and then turns around and identifies schools as failures under NCLB.”
This new mandate could have dire consequences for school districts, especially those with high populations of non-English-speaking students. If schools do not meet academic progress in several categories under the federal law, the consequences can range from having to transfer children to a better-performing school in the district, to changing an entire building’s curriculum to losing federal funding.
School district officials, both suburban and urban, predict alarmingly high rates of failure for the foreign-language children and their schools.
“It’s bad enough we have to give these tests. Now we have to target kids who don’t speak English,” said Jane Unhjem, the Goshen School District’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “It’s an unreasonable burden for our children and teachers.”
The Middletown School District, which lost roughly $250,000 in funding last year after being labeled underperforming, has 830 students who are learning English as a second language. The district created 11 teaching positions nearly three years ago to serve the growing population of English-language learners. And while that’s a great start, Superintendent Ken Eastwood said, it’s not enough to make first-year foreign-language-learning students excel on the exams.
Eastwood likened the new mandate to asking students studying a foreign language to take the Regents exam after only one year.
Students don’t take foreign language Regents until they’ve completed three years of study.
Mills wrote federal education officials, stressing that for English-language learners to do well on the test, they must have at least three years of instruction. Before the new mandate in June, English-language learners took a yearly test to assess how well they were learning. After three years, they took the English Language Arts standardized test to gauge mastery of English. The commissioner asked that the children taking this year’s ELA exam do so for participation only, not be counted toward a school’s annual academic progress under NCLB.
“Give us the time, the three years, to get these kids ready to take the exam,” Eastwood said. “Don’t beat us with a stick and say you gotta do it in a year.”