Educators fear test promotes students who aren't ready
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 2, 2006

Anne Ryman

The state says that Luis Jaime is proficient in English.

This means he is ready for the regular classroom and is no longer part of the English-learner program where he got extra help to learn the language.

In reality, his teacher, Sandra Lambie, must still give him lots of extra help.

That's because the fifth-grader's reading and writing scores were below proficient, according to the language proficiency test. But his speaking skills were high enough that when the three scores were added together he had an overall passing score.

The 11-year-old's parents speak mainly Spanish. He learned most of his English at his school, G. Frank Davidson Elementary, where he has been a student for three years.

Luis is one of 2,234 students in the Cartwright School District who passed the Stanford English Language Proficiency Test last year. The number of students who passed was nearly double the year before. Before the state changed proficiency tests, Cartwright students were tested with the Idea Proficiency Test. That test required students to pass all parts - reading, writing and speaking - to be rated proficient in English.

Cartwright's experience is similar to what is happening across Arizona. In a single year, the number of students who passed the new test doubled. Teachers say the sudden increase is because the new state-mandated test is easier to pass, not because more children learn English more rapidly. They worry some students who passed this year aren't ready for the regular classroom.

In Cartwright, only 50 percent of fifth-graders who passed the test last year were proficient on all areas of the test. Large percentages of students who passed the language test also failed Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, which measures reading, writing and math. Luis failed all three parts of the AIMS test last year.

State Department of Education officials and the test's publisher, Harcourt Assessment, say the Stanford is a reliable measure of proficiency. Company spokesman Rick Blake said some students are stronger in some areas than others, which is why the test uses a composite score to determine overall proficiency.

"We think it's very good," he said of the test.

Education Department officials say that passing the language test doesn't mean students will also pass AIMS because the Stanford measures language while AIMS measures knowledge of academics.

Because so many students weren't proficient in every area of the Stanford test, Jodi Bernhardt, the principal at Luis' school, doesn't take the test results at face value.

She and the teachers at his school are determined to give the kids the extra help they need even though the kids are no longer in the English-learner program and the district no longer gets an extra $358 in state funding for each student.

In Luis' case, it's help with writing.

He uses simple sentences and sometimes will misspell common words, using "bout" when he means "bought" and "especiall" when he means special.Three times a week when the other students read at their desks, the teacher pulls him aside for 15 minutes to help him write and work on vocabulary.

"He needs a lot of support and with that, he'll get there," said Leticia Ruelas, the school's language acquisition specialist.

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8072.