Districts wary of new test

Educators say unfair to limited-English kids

It was an otherwise normal school day in April when 10-year-old Jonathan Rodriguez walked into his Oakland home to face a question that seemed to frighten him: How had he done on California’s new, mandatory achievement tests?

Normally a cherubic boy with expressive eyes, Jonathan withdrew to a corner and seemed to shrink within himself. All he could muster was a shrug.

“He kept saying, ‘I don’t know,’ ” said his father, Gaspar Rodriguez, a graveyard-shift custodian. “He just didn’t know how he did.”

Jonathan didn’t know because he doesn’t fully understand English, the language the test was given in. His family arrived from Puerto Rico six years ago, and while Jonathan takes English classes, all his other subjects are taught in his native Spanish.

He is one of 1.3 million students in California public schools who are just learning English. Like Jonathan, nearly all those kids are having their learning skills evaluated by tests in English, even though they struggle with the language.

That process is causing deep divisions within the education community.

Many educators feel students not fluent in English should have been exempted from the Statewide Testing and Reporting (STAR) program or evaluated in their own language. They complain that not doing so fails to accurately assess these kids, stigmatizes them and depresses the scores of districts where many are enrolled.

The governor’s office dismisses these claims as those of educators chafing at a test that will assess how kids are doing and, by extension, how the educators are doing.

It is against this backdrop that the STAR results will be released June 30.

All but a small number of California students have taken the statewide tests, which rate math, science, reading, social science, language and spelling skills for all public school kids between second and 11th grades.

Those few who haven’t been tested — at least 6,000 students — are mostly recently arrived immigrants whose participation was blocked by a court ruling that state officials will appeal Thursday. Twelve days later, the California Department of Education will release preliminary results of the Statewide Testing and Reporting (STAR) program.

The scores will be issued with reservations echoed by school districts whose student rolls are filled with kids like Jonathan Rodriguez.

District leaders ask: What is proven by testing limited-English-proficient students in English, other than showing that they don’t speak English?

“(Giving) these tests was a decision made by politicians, not educators,” said Jim Sweeney, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District. “What we’re told is the results of the test will go home. So (LEP) students will get a letter at home saying, ‘You’re a failure.’ “

The STAR tests were pushed through the Legislature last year by Gov. Pete Wilson.

“The state has no way to assess what works, what doesn’t work, how well our children are doing and whether we are getting value for our (education) dollar,” said Sean Walsh, Wilson’s spokesman.

“The governor finally put his foot down and said enough is enough. We have to have a baseline. We have to be able to know how well a kid is doing in San Diego and compare it to how well a kid is doing in Sacramento.”

While there are other concerns about the STAR tests — whether the questions correspond well enough to what was actually taught, for instance — the issue of testing kids not fluent in English has been the most controversial.

Indeed, even though voters on June 2 overwhelmingly passed Proposition 227 — which virtually prohibits bilingual education — resistance to English-only measures in schools remains strong.

For example, the San Francisco Unified School District sued the state Department of Education over the test and won a ruling in San Francisco Superior Court exempting the district from giving the test to nearly 6,000 limited-English students, many of them recently arrived immigrants.

State officials have filed a motion to reconsider the ruling and a hearing is set for Thursday.

“We had a lot of concerns regarding the self-esteem of a student who has just come to this country and is forced to take a test in a language he or she still doesn’t understand,” said Emily Den, special assistant for equal opportunity at the San Francisco Unified School District. Den said she is not opposed to a standardized achievement test for all California students, but thinks LEP students shouldn’t be in the mix.

The San Francisco district tested its native English speakers, but not LEP students. For them, the only fair evaluation is a test in their native language until they are English proficient, Den said.

Though they shared the concerns of the San Francisco district, educators in other districts with large numbers of limited-English students chose not to sue.

Sweeney said he feared that by refusing to give the test, Sacramento City Unified officials would be sending out “the wrong message” that they were shying away from their responsibility to teach.

At the Fresno Unified School District, officials were told by their lawyer that if they sued as San Francisco did, they would lose.

“We were pleased to see (San Francisco) got that ruling and we would like to drop back to that kind of guideline where the (most remedial) limited-English-proficient students were exempted,” said Robert Grobe, director of research, evaluation and assessment for Fresno Unified.

Grobe thinks the discrepancies in English-speaking enrollment will be reflected in test scores. State figures for the 1996-97 school year show that 24.6 percent of California’s students aren’t proficient in English. But in Fresno County, 60.3 percent of public school pupils — 47,334 students — don’t speak the language well.

“We know the average scores in Fresno Unified are going to be low. . . . Compared to suburban schools, there are going to be disparate comparisons.”

None of that will be known until the results are posted by the Department of Education on June 30. Overall results breaking down scores by county, district and school will appear on the Internet.

Later, individual scores will be mailed home.

“I’m sure some districts have legitimate concerns that they will be viewed rather harshly,” Walsh said. “We had to get this program started. We are reforming the way we conduct education in the state, but we can’t do everything overnight.”

For the Rodriguez family, issues of reform take a back seat to raising their son Jonathan to be a good student and a good person.

“My son still struggles with English,” said Gaspar Rodriguez, of his soon-to-be sixth-grader. “He’s been in (English) classes where I’ve been concerned about his progress because most of his classes have been in Spanish as opposed to English.

“Turning around and then giving him important examinations in English just doesn’t make any sense.”

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