English-learner test scores may imperil schools
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 10, 2006

Meghan E. Moravcik

The federal government could label another 100 Arizona schools as failures by fall if state education officials lose a battle to exclude test scores of students who are not yet proficient in English.

It could make a costly difference to some districts if they are forced to draw up expensive corrective plans. Until now, federal and state officials agreed that English-language learners' test scores would not be counted until after their third year in Arizona, according to Arizona schools chief Tom Horne. Now, Horne said, the federal government is trying to back out of the deal.

"I'm getting ready to sue," he said. Unlike Arizona, many states count the scores of English-language learners the first year they enter the program because the students can take standardized tests in their native languages.
But in Arizona, English-only laws require all tests to be taken in English."It's ridiculous to expect a kid who comes here from Mexico to pass an academic test in English after one year," Horne said.

Horne supported the legislation that created the English-only test requirement, and he sticks by that now, saying students must learn English to succeed in the United States.

"Within one or two years, the student will learn enough English to be able to learn in English," Horne said. "But for many students, it takes a third year to become sufficiently proficient to pass an academic test."

Being flexible
Horne said the federal government now is trying to force Arizona schools to count such students' scores after one year. A spokesperson for the U.S.
Department of Education declined to comment on whether the agreement is still in play because conversations with state officials are pending.

Just two years ago, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige posted a letter online that emphasized the importance of flexibility to improve educational opportunities for students, especially those who are learning English.

"Often, these newly arriving students have a difficult time participating in state assessments due to language barriers or schooling experiences in their native country," Paige wrote to colleagues.

Paige wrote that he would provide flexibility to the states in implementing No Child Left Behind, which sets academic goals for districts nationwide.

Horne has until the end of the summer to seek a judge's ruling on whether the federal government must uphold its oral agreement. Thereafter, the state faces possible fines by not complying.

If the federal government prevails, Horne estimated that it could mean another 100 Arizona schools would not make their "Adequate Yearly Progress,"
or AYP, a measure based on test scores that the federal government uses to determine how well schools are performing. In the 2004-05 school year, 237 schools failed to make adequate progress, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Paying the price
That can financially tax schools, said Jennifer Owin, coordinator of school accountability and research for the Dysart Unified School District.

One school in the Dysart district did not make adequate progress last school year, Owin said. If test requirements change, at least another four schools might not make it this year. Under current practices, Dysart officials file an appeal not to count non-English-speaking students' scores if they make up a large enough group to affect the school's yearly progress. Last year, several schools passed, thanks to that process.

If more schools fail to make adequate yearly progress, they each will have to start creating an improvement plan and might eventually have to begin restructuring the school, which can be expensive, Owin said.

Districts may have to provide transportation to students who want to attend other schools, hire new staff and create new professional development opportunities.

If English-language learners' scores are the only reason schools are not making adequate progress, they'll face a lot of unnecessary consequences, she said.