S.F. gives in, will test kids not fluent in English

Settlement with state averts trial, will bring more cash to district

San Francisco Unified School District has agreed to test children with limited English skills, reversing a fiercely defended policy to excuse these kids and averting a trial that was scheduled to begin Monday.

The stunning and unexpected settlement was reached Wednesday between San Francisco Unified and the California Department of Education and Board of Education.

While both sides of the suit said they have agreed to the settlement, it has not been signed. Signatures are expected within days, attorneys for both sides said.

The issue revolves around the Stanford 9 achievement test given each spring to California’s 4.2 million students in grades two through 11. State law requires all public school students, regardless of their English proficiency, to take the exam in English.

But San Francisco has refused for six years to test children who are not yet fluent in English, the only district in the state to do so. School officials and attorneys for the district have contended that testing these children damages self esteem, yields invalid test results and violates their civil rights.

The settlement, which was approved by the school board earlier this week,
states that San Francisco Unified “agrees that all English language learners shall take the achievement test . . . in English” and take any successive tests in English.

Nearly 6,000 current San Francisco schoolchildren who have previously been exempted from testing will take the statewide exam beginning in the spring,
according to the terms of the settlement.

District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was out of town and unavailable for comment. The school board approved the settlement on a 5-2 vote in closed session, with board members Dan Kelly and Juanita Owens in opposition.

Board President Mary Hernandez said approval was not easy.

“As you know, we felt strongly about this,” Hernandez said. “In the end, we had to look at the fiduciary responsibility we have to our kids and look at how best we can work with Sacramento rather than against them.”

An attorney representing the state Board of Education said all of the parties had agreed to the settlement.

“It’s just a matter of gathering signatures,” said Deputy Attorney General Tracy Stinson, who was assigned to represent the state Board of Education.

“It’s a win-win situation for all parties,” Stinson said. “It allows all students to participate in public accountability.”

The state Board of Education’s staff attorney Rae Belisle said, “I think people have come to understand the value of having all children tested.”

Belisle added, “I think it shows we had a very good case. When you look at the key issues, one was their contention of harm to the children. We contended there was no harm.”

The school district’s attorneys declined to comment.

Ackerman’s assistant, Jenifer Hartman, said both sides would be issuing a joint statement Thursday.

Because of the district’s policy to exempt limited-English students from testing, fewer than 13 percent of San Francisco public schools were eligible this year for cash rewards from the governor.

To be eligible for the rewards, elementary and middle schools must test at least 95 percent of their students and high schools must test at least 90 percent.

Schools that meet the state’s requirements and show necessary academic progress get rewards of up to $150 per pupil, and up to $1,600 per staff member.

The settlement “means that all of the schools will have the opportunity to participate in the governor’s awards program,” Belisle said.

San Francisco Unified’s exclusion policy also cost the district $640,000 in state funds aimed at educating limited-English students.

As part of the settlement, the district will get those funds.

The state Department of Education ruled in April that the district was ineligible because of its noncompliance.

“This (settlement) is good news for students and schools,” said Ann Bancroft, spokeswoman for John Mockler, Gov. Davis’ interim secretary for Education. “It means that no student will be left behind in an incentive-based system of accountability that has already

shown positive results in schools.”

The state policy requiring the tests was signed into law by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and supported by Davis. It seeks to include all children in assessment. Some 1.4 million California schoolchildren are not yet fluent in English.

“English learners should command more of our attention, not less of our attention,” Davis has said.

The state’s exam tests young students in reading, writing and math, and in the higher grades in science, history and social science.

San Francisco was joined in its 1998 lawsuit by school districts in Oakland,
Berkeley and Hayward. Only San Francisco has continued to refuse to test children.

The trial was to begin in a San Francisco courtroom Nov. 6 but was rescheduled for Monday after San Francisco Superior Court Judge Paul H.
Alvarado last month narrowed the legal arguments that San Francisco Unified could have used against the state.

The judge ruled, for instance, that the district’s claim that the test was discriminatory, based on Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, was not legitimate because Title VI requires proof of intentional discrimination.

“When this suit was filed in 1998, people were nervous because we hadn’t had a statewide accountability system,” said Belisle, the attorney for the state Board of Education. “As time has gone by, people have seen how the test works. I think there’s a feeling now that if you don’t hold districts and schools accountable, then you don’t have a complete system.”

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