Teachers say test does not prove kids know English
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 8, 2005


Anne Ryman
Thousands of Arizona students struggling to learn English are about to lose extra help because a new state test shows they can read and write in English, though educators fear many of them really can't.

In some districts, students are passing a new state test that says they are proficient in English at nearly double the rate of last year. But, educators say, the test is just easier and these kids aren't likely to pass regular classes without help.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne said the criticism comes because some school districts don't want to lose the extra money, about $350 per English-language learner. He said some schools have kept students designated as English-language learners for years because it means more money.

If students test as proficient in English, they no longer qualify for the program that provides trained teachers, extra materials and after-school tutoring.

School districts used to have the choice of one of four language tests, but the 2004-05 school year marked the first time the state mandated a single test for consistency.

Horne said the new test is objective and is an accurate measure of whether students are proficient in English. Proficient means the student can speak, understand, read and write enough English to function in a regular classroom.

"They need to be mainstreamed and competing with all those students and excelling academically as individuals and not kept in a dependency environment," Horne said.

But educators aren't convinced.

"We're very concerned," said Cindy Segotta-Jones, director of language acquisition for Cartwright Elementary School District in Phoenix. She said about 2,200 Cartwright students passed the language test - nearly double the usual rate.

Students who pass the test are monitored for two years and can be pulled back into the program, with parent permission. Also, many schools offer after-school tutoring, summer school and other programs to help students learn English. Those programs are not tied to the new test.

Scottsdale parent Reese Welsh, who works as a volunteer with English-language learners, has concerns about the high numbers of students passing.

"The kids haven't improved all of a sudden," he said.

Students who are no longer eligible for the English language-learner program in the fall will receive a letter home informing their parents.

Arizona has about 160,000 English language-learners in school with Spanish being the predominant language. Other languages range from Vietnamese to Russian and from Arabic to Bosnian.

Federal law requires schools to test these students every year and continue to provide intensive language services for those who don't pass. The questions of how long the services should last, the type of instruction and the level of funding for English-language learners have been hotly debated for years by educators and policy makers.

Arizona is under a federal court order to spend more money on English-language learners that grew out of a 1992 lawsuit filed by a Nogales family.

In May, Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed a Republican bill on the issue and offered up her own plan a month later. Her plan would boost the per-student allocation for every student classified as English language-learners. She hopes to call a legislative special session later this summer to resolve the issue.

Advocates for English-language learners worry that even if the Arizona Legislature approves more funding per child, the latest test results still will mean fewer students eligible for services.

In the past, about 10 percent of Arizona's English language-learners tested proficient each year. Statewide figures for the new language test won't be available until after July 31.

But many individual school districts already know their scores.

In the Murphy Elementary School District in Phoenix, 220 students are declared proficient up from 31 last year. Gloria Rivera, who oversees language services for the Murphy district, worries that students will be taken out of the program too soon.

"We're going through all this, and we'll have to bring them back into the program a year down the road when they are even further behind," she said.

Sal Gabaldon, a language acquisition specialist for the Tucson Unified School District, said the new test is far different from previous ones used in Tucson schools.

The previous test used in Tucson required students to pass all three parts - reading, writing and oral - to be declared proficient in English, he said. The new test uses a composite score so it's possible that a somewhat lower score in writing could be offset by a higher oral score.

Tim Hogan, a Phoenix attorney for the Center for Law in the Public Interest, said he is checking into the test after receiving complaints from school district officials.

"If this test allows you to be deemed proficient without being proficient in reading and writing, then it's going to violate federal law," he said.

Horne, the state superintendent of public instruction, said he is "absolutely certain" the new test is within the law.

The Stanford English Language Proficiency Test made its statewide debut in Arizona this past school year.

"All our tests are fair and accurate measures," said Mark Slitt, spokesman for Harcourt Assessment, which publishes the test. Several schools in other states use the test, Slitt said, and seven other states besides Arizona have selected the test for statewide use. Horne said the state has taken a big step forward by using a single test.

"This allows us to have accurate statistics," he said. "Before there was no way to have accurate statistics because students were taking different tests."

In the Scottsdale Unified School District, officials expect about 500 students to pass the language test up from about 300 the last few years. Cathy Rivera, who oversees language services, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I won't have concerns unless the kids are not successful," she said. "I don't have that data."

Sen. Linda Aquirre (D-Phoenix) said the state needs to make changes in the test "otherwise you will set these kids up for definite failure."

Horne said there are no plans to change the test.

"It's an accurate measure," he said.

Reach the reporter at anne.ryman@arizonarepublic.com (602) 444-8072.