South County schools want more accurate assessments
June 1, 2005
By Chris Moran, STAFF WRITER
CHULA VISTA The Chula Vista Elementary and Sweetwater Union High School districts are among 10 school districts statewide that plan to file suit against the state of California this week to put a stop to English-only testing of students who are learning English.

The suit will ask the state to enforce the federal No Child Left Behind Act provision that calls for each state to give English learners "to the extent practicable, assessments in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on what such students know."

In South County that means Spanish, the home language of more than 90 percent of students who are learning English. One of the attorneys representing the school districts, Mary Hernandez, said the lawsuit sets three goals: modifications such as oral directions in students' native language, state tests in Spanish and a plan for developing tests in other languages.

The California Association for Bilingual Education, Californians Together, the League of United Latin American Citizens and eight other school districts in the state will join Chula Vista Elementary and Sweetwater in the suit.

All second-through 11th-graders in the state annually sit for what are known as the California Standards Tests. The exams have been designed to measure how well students know the standards what the state has deemed important to know in each subject in each grade.

By requiring schools to report pass rates on these math and English tests by race, income and language fluency, the No Child Left Behind Act aims in part to focus attention on students who have lagged historically in most academic measures.

Starting this year the law also requires that at least 24.4 percent of each group including low-income students, minorities and English learners pass the English/language arts test for a school to get a passing grade from the federal government.

Chula Vista and Sweetwater contend that by choosing to offer English-only tests, the state isn't measuring how well English learners learn content reading comprehension and math word problems, for example. The low pass rates say only that these students don't understand the questions.

"It's telling us what we already know," said Chula Vista Superintendent Lowell Billings.

Eventual English fluency
The state doesn't make distinctions between the language and the content. To the state, the language is the content.

"Part of our content standards is English/language arts, and it's hard to test that if you're not doing it in English," said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education.

Sweetwater Assistant Superintendent Ernie Anastos said South County's English learners eventually become fluent, and scores show that when they do they outperform even native English speakers. It doesn't happen quickly, though, he said, and No Child Left Behind recognizes this with a clause that gives schools the option to test English learners in another language for as many as five years.

McLean argues that students already get time to learn English. Because so many English learners enter public schools in kindergarten and testing doesn't occur until near the end of second grade, they're close to completing three years of school before they're tested, McLean said.

Of the 432,000 English learners who took a separate state test last year to measure their English fluency, 47 percent of them were kindergarteners.

Students who enter the school system at an older age are also given time to adjust, McLean said. The scores of English learners who have attended California schools for less than a year don't count on schools' federal report cards.

Sanctions for low scores
The language of testing matters enough for Chula Vista and Sweetwater to budget $20,000 to $40,000 each for a lawsuit because the consequences for failing the test are so high.

Schools where pass rates repeatedly fall short of federal benchmarks face sanctions that start with giving parents the choice to transfer their children to other schools and a ride to get there. Ultimately, low scores can prompt the government to close a school or hand its management over to a private company.

Many schools in the county are on this path of escalating punishments because English learners aren't passing the tests.

Anastos said the lawsuit is about making sure that sanctions are imposed on schools because of what students learn or don't learn, not because of the way their learning is measured.

In desperation to meet federal passing rates for English learners in English and math, Anastos said, schools may double up on these subjects at the expense of science, social studies and other subjects courses students need to qualify for admission to the state university systems.

And Billings said that because the sanctions prescribe that money be spent on busing and private tutors, it shrinks the pot of money available to fund other programs to help low-income students.

"This is not about relaxing accountability," Billings said in an interview Thursday. "It's not about circumventing (Proposition) 227," the initiative approved by state voters in 1998 that bans most bilingual education. "It's not about denying children the opportunity to learn English."

The previous night Billings attended a Spanish language celebration on the campus of the Chula Vista Learning Community Charter School, which has been put on the federal watch list for low test scores. It's an elementary school where more than half the students are English learners.

The school's mission is to produce bilingual students, teaching its students half the time in English and half in Spanish from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Second-grader Luis Cacho wowed the auditorium crowd with an essay on why Spanish is important to him. It's the language of his grandparents, he said in Spanish, and it's sad that some of his cousins can't understand them.

"When I grow up I'm going to make a lot of money because I'm bilingual!" he said, rubbing his thumb against his fingers to emphasize the point to grand applause.

Juanita Marquez, a monolingual Spanish-speaking parent who organized the event, judges the school by the nights and weekends that teachers work and by the beautiful essay the daughter she's raising by herself read on stage.

The results of one test in English don't tell her what she needs to know about Chula Vista Learning Community, she said.