Educators Criticize Test For Learners Of English

The Cost And Times Needed Are Problematic, Local Districts Say

A new state test designed to gauge the language skills of students learning English may have good intentions, but it is a logistical and financial nightmare, many educators say.

The tests, which involve intensive one-on-one oral exams, siphon valuable teaching time from students and cost districts far more than the state reimburses, educators complain.

West Contra Costa Unified School District officials don’t think they’ll finish testing their 11,000 non-native English speakers before Oct. 31, the state deadline.

Mt. Diablo Unified School District officials say the state’s reimbursement of $1.50 per test is more than $20 less than the true cost. The district will spend $153,000 this year on the tests.

Pittsburg Unified School District officials say the labor-intensive language test means that bilingual aides will spend time giving the exam to the district’s 3,000 English learners rather than helping in the classroom.

The exam, called the California English Language Development Test, is the latest tool intended to make schools accountable and raise student achievement. Many California schools began giving the tests this summer.

State Department of Education officials say the intensive testing is necessary because lesser measures would not provide an adequate picture of individual and schoolwide proficiency. Test results will help schools determine appropriate classrooms and support services for students with language barriers.

Many educators say they support the test’s goals but think the program is too intensive and that English learners should not have to take the whole thing every year. Districts around the state have begun lobbying for remedies.

“We understand districts are having trouble. We hear them, and we are going to be responding,” said Paul Warren, deputy superintendent of California schools. “We have to finish (testing) and assess the program.”

California lawmakers mandated the test in 1997, a year before voters curtailed bilingual education programs. Since then, students have been expected to more quickly learn English and enter mainstream classes.

On Tuesday, Mt. Diablo Unified started testing students at two summer schools, pulling individual students out of remedial classes for as long as two hours to check their reading and writing skills through a written test, and as long as 30 minutes to assess their listening and speaking skills through an oral exam.

On Wednesday, Ivonne Anaya spent nearly one hour with one Meadow Homes Elementary third-grader to complete the oral section.

After running through various listening and speaking exercises, Anaya asked the girl to listen to a story on a tape recorder and then retell it. As the third-grader did, Anaya jotted down as many words as she could. When the girl left, Anaya replayed the tape and filled in the gaps.

The more than 7,000 Mt. Diablo Unified students whose first language is not English are among 1 million statewide scheduled for the assessments.

“I’m counting them down 6,999 to go, 6,998 to go. This is really going slowly,” said Lorie Johnson, a bilingual teacher who decided to work this summer to help the district meet the deadline.

The Livermore school district is pulling students from an intensive English-language institute this summer in an effort to get all 1,200 tests completed on time. Pittsburg Unified is running a similar testing program this summer to chip away at the required assessments.

Districts receive $1.50 per student to cover the cost of testing, a rate many educators say is almost laughable.

“That doesn’t even pay for the clerical time involved to keep track of the test booklet,” said Toni Oklan-Arko, coordinator of English language development for the West Contra Costa school district.

The test is supposed to standardize the way schools measure the language skills of students who don’t speak English at home. School-by-school results may be added to the state’s high-stakes school ranking system in future years.

Lisa Shafer covers education. Reach her at 925-943-8345 or [email protected]

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