TUSD must test the English language skills of about 12,000 students -
about 5,000 more than last year - to comply with a federal requirement
to make sure non-native speakers are learning English quickly.
The additional testing of students has drafted central office employees
to become temporary testers.
Arizona schools used to be able to choose one of four brands of language
assessment tests, but this year they all must use the same test so the
government can measure year to year if students are learning English
The new Stanford English Language Proficiency, or SELP, test requires
that all English-language learners take the reading, writing and oral
tests each year, and it gives a composite score. Previously, students
who passed the oral test didn't take it the following year when they
took the reading and writing exams again in some Arizona districts,
including TUSD and Sunnyside Unified.
The change has created a crunch in TUSD, because about 5,000 students
must now take the oral portion of the new test, and each student takes
15 to 30 minutes to assess one-on-one, said Steven Holmes, interim
director for TUSD language acquisition.
Tucson Unified School District has trained about 140 employees from the
district headquarters and other nonschool sites to give the oral portion
of the new test.
"I usually just see the data at the end, and this is where it starts,"
said one of the testers drafted, Rick Haan, interim director for
accountability and research. He was helping monitor fourth-graders
taking the listening test at Miller Elementary Tuesday. "Sometimes when
you look at the data and you think this or that school isn't doing well
- here you see what is really happening and what teachers are doing."
The moonlighting testers, who received training on how to give the test,
assessed about 130 students at the Southwest Side Miller Elementary.
Students sat at tables in the library and listened to a tape recording
of a woman's voice asking questions. During part of the test, the
students heard words like "pin" and "card" and marked which picture in
their booklet matched the word.
Fifth-grader Jennifer Torreblanca said learning English has been
difficult. She's been learning English for three years.
"It is hard. You get messed up because your mom speaks in Spanish and
you speak English in school," she said. The hardest part of the test was
the writing because, she said, she doesn't know that many words.
The SELP test is designed to assess the reading, writing, speaking and
listening abilities of students whose first language is not English or
kids who live in a home where English is not the only language spoken.
Students also need to gain a "proficient" score on an oral
language-assessment test to be able to enroll in a bilingual classroom
if they are under 10 years of age.
School officials said they don't yet know if a "proficient" on the prior
test is equivalent to a "proficient" on the SELP test, but the new test
appears, on the surface, to be more thorough and challenging because
it's more in-depth, Haan said.
It could be possible for a student to have passed the oral test on the
old assessment but not pass it on the SELP test and have to move from a
bilingual class to a structured English- immersion class next year,
In a related development, the Arizona Department of Education will
announce Dec. 15 whether school districts have made enough progress in
teaching English language learners by comparing students'
language-assessment test scores from 2002-03 and 2003-04.
Districts whose English-language learners are not picking up English
quickly enough will not face consequences this year, but if the students
don't improve by the next year the districts will have to come up with a
formal improvement plan, said Rolanda Bell, director of evaluation for
the Arizona Department of Education.
Arizona students' progress will be measured against state standards,
which chart out where English learners should be, such as using single
words at the beginning stage to being able to speak in small group
discussions at the advanced stage. The standards were approved in early
Some TUSD schools are offering after-school tutoring for English
learners to help them learn a new language while absorbing lessons in
math, science and social studies. Miller Elementary will begin tutoring
in small groups for 20 students in grades K-2 after classes in January,
said Principal Cathi DeSalvo.
"The sooner we can identify them the more proficient they'll be at an
earlier age," she said. "We're targeting K-2 because we want them to
become proficient as soon as possible, because it will help them be
better readers and writers later."