Every time Vanessa Ontiveros read a question on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, she went through the same process.

Read in English. Think about the meaning in Spanish. Come up with an answer in Spanish. Translate it back to English.

She was nervous, the 10-year-old said the day after completing the writing portion. A fourth-grader at Manatee County’s Tillman Elementary, Vanessa has lived in Florida for as long as she can remember. But her family is from Mexico and speaks Spanish at home.

Like almost a quarter of Tillman’s students, Vanessa is classified as “limited English proficient,” or LEP. Their troubles with English make it harder to handle the FCAT, which is being given this week.

“They’re doing double the brain process than the American kids,” Karen Ammons, Tillman’s school improvement director, said.

LEP students statewide fail to meet Florida’s minimum reading standards. The state requires that all LEP kids enrolled in English programs for two or more years take the FCAT but permits exemptions.

Schools are torn between testing the students anyway — knowing some of them will not score well — and exempting them until their English skills improve.

The kids, meanwhile, feel pressure to succeed on the FCAT, knowing that low scores could hurt the average for their class or their school. And 10th- graders carry an additional burden. Starting this year they must pass the FCAT to graduate.

“It’s a pretty terrifying process, and they get so upset because they understand it’s important,” said Candi Fleet, Manatee County’s specialist for the bilingual programs.

LEP students in all grades are scoring below the average student statewide on the FCAT, with high school students performing the worst.

Last year, 59 percent of Florida’s LEP high school students received a score of 1 on their reading tests — the lowest score on a five-point scale.

Math and writing scores for LEP students reached the state’s minimum levels, but still fell short of the averages for all students.

Low scores from LEP students can contribute to a lower grade for an entire school, especially when the school has a high percentage of students learning English. Test scores are the major factor the state uses to grade schools.

Manatee County has higher percentages of LEP students than Charlotte or Sarasota counties. Most of those students are in elementary schools. Last year, LEP pupils made up more than 10 percent of enrollment at 10 of Manatee’s 26 elementary schools. The majority of those schools received C’s from the state.

But if schools choose to exempt students until they are likely to score higher, they take away chances for the children to practice taking the test.

Chantal Phillips, supervisor of alternative programs for Charlotte County, said her school district tries to include all students in the testing, unless they have no experience with English.

“It exposes them to the testing experience that they are going to have to have sooner or later,” Phillips said.

Students with less than two years in a bilingual program can take the FCAT without having their scores counted toward the school’s grade.

Experience becomes crucial when students reach high school, knowing they must pass the FCAT to graduate. That requirement went into effect this year with the sophomore class. They can take the test as many times as they need to pass.

Language barrier to graduation

Brenda O’Connor, an assistant principal at Manatee County’s Southeast High School, said that rule could prevent a smart, ambitious girl at her school from graduating on time.

The girl, whom O’Connor did not identify, recently moved to Bradenton from Mexico and can pass her math test easily. But her reading level is so low that she might not be able to pass that test in time to graduate with her class, O’Connor told U.S. Rep. Dan Miller at a recent forum on high-stakes testing.

JoAnn Carrin, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the state is concerned that LEP students are not performing up to standard on the FCAT.

But, Carrin said, their scores in 2000 improved on every part of the FCAT from the year before, except for a slight drop in high school students’ reading performance. The improvement indicates that students are getting used to the FCAT, Carrin said.

Schools can help LEP students by adjusting how they take the test. The state allows the kids to take additional time, have a bilingual teacher translate questions and use a dictionary that translates words in their native language into English.

Teachers set classroom goals, give practice tests and work one on one with students who struggle — whether they are classified as LEP or have spoken English all their lives.

“You have to train them,” said Sonia Figaredo-Alberts, Sarasota’s program administrator for English for Speakers of Other Languages. “You have to expose them to the types of questions it (FCAT) asks.”

A practice test helped a girl at Tillman Elementary avoid a costly mistake on the FCAT. She wrote good answers, Tillman’s Ammons said, but she gave every answer in Spanish.

Other children misinterpret idioms in FCAT questions, Ammons said. A child who isn’t familiar with the phrase “piece of cake” might read that literally instead of understanding that it means “easy.”

Teachers work around that problem by hanging up popular phrases on the walls and making sure students are familiar with them.

In Sarasota County, school officials work on educating the parents as well.

Schools will hold Saturday or evening meetings for parents, explaining the FCAT, what it means and why the schools want students to do well. Some parents have seen standardized tests in other countries but not with the same pressures and ramifications for students.

“Educating the parents is helping provide support to students,” Figaredo-Alberts said. “Many do not know they have to pass the FCAT.”

The range of backgrounds LEP students come from means that districts often face special challenges.

In Manatee County, district educational programs director Pat Lucas has seen families that used to live in caves in Ecuador.

She said some mothers from other countries won’t talk with her about their children’s educational needs because they don’t take that role in their culture.

The week before the reading and math tests started in Manatee County, program director Fleet had teachers ask her for bilingual dictionaries in Macedonian, Chinese, Russian, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Slovakian and Spanish.

Of course, Fleet said, having a dictionary for the test won’t help if the student doesn’t know how to use it.

Fleet also said the time LEP students are given to take the FCAT isn’t always enough. Students have up to a day to complete the test, and some, Fleet said, would take more time if they had it.

All the students, even the smartest ones and those who feel comfortable with the language, wonder if they’ll be able to do well on the FCAT.

Celerino Santana, who sits near Vanessa Ontiveros in their Tillman classroom, loves to read scary stories and said it’s fun to switch between English and his native Spanish.

Now in fourth grade, Celerino was a second-grader when his family moved to Palmetto from Mexico. The hardest part of learning English, he said, was “trying to pick the letters,” or spell. He still can’t always think of the words he needs to answer questions.

Before he took the FCAT reading and math test this week, Celerino said he thought the math test would be easier. The 10-year-old, who wants to become a doctor, took the writing portion last month.

How did he do?

He shrugged and smiled. “Maybe fine.”

Staff writer Courtney Cairns Pastor can be contacted at 742-6157 or courtney.pastor@herald-trib.com.

County by county

Higher percentages of students in Manatee County are classified as “limited English proficient,” or LEP, than in other southwest Florida school districts.

LEP students make up 7.9 percent of Manatee’s elementary pupils, 3 percent of its middle-schoolers and 1.8 percent of its high school students.

In Sarasota County, 4.2 percent of elementary, 2.5 percent of middle and 1. 8 percent of high school students are LEP. Charlotte County has 0.6 percent in elementary, 0.8 percent in middle and 1 percent in high school who are LEP.

The state requires all LEP students who have taken two or more years of bilingual education to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

At least 60 percent of a school’s student population must score 2 or higher on a five-point scale if the school is considered at the minimum performance level. That allows for 40 percent of the students tested to score 1, the lowest score.

Statewide, LEP students did not meet those goals on the reading test. At the high school level last year, 41 percent of LEP students received 2 or higher on the reading test. Elementary and middle school students fared better, with 58 percent and 59 percent, respectively, in that category.

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