In a legal victory for San Francisco schools, a Superior Court judge ruled yesterday that nearly 6,000 children in the city who do not speak English will not have to take California’s new achievement test in English.
San Francisco is the only school district in the state that has refused to give non-English speakers the math and reading test this spring, although other districts had grumbled about the logic of the English-only test law. San Francisco educators said testing everyone in English violated immigrant children’s civil rights.
In a terse four-sentence ruling, Judge David Garcia denied a petition by the state Board of Education and Department of Education to force San Francisco to test all children in English.
The judge did not explain his ruling. But in a hearing earlier this week, Garcia questioned whether testing foreign language speakers in English would reliably measure what they know.
Although yesterday’s ruling applied only to San Francisco, a bill scheduled to go before the state Assembly next week would exempt all immigrant students with less than 30 months of English instruction from taking the Standardized Testing and Reporting program, or STAR test.
“I think it’s a great day,” said San Francisco schools chief Bill Rojas, who urged Governor Pete Wilson to sign the test exemption bill if it reaches his desk.
Rojas and other opponents of the English-only rule have long said it makes no sense to test children in a language they do not understand.
But Wilson and his appointed members of the state Board of Education say testing all children in English, even if they don’t know the language, gives a base for measuring their progress in English over the years.
That’s consistent with Wilson’s overall support for English-only education.
Earlier this week, he announced his support for Proposition 227, which would eliminate bilingual education in California.
“This ruling is patently a shame,” said Sean Walsh, Wilson’s spokesman. “We believe every child in every school district should be measured on their knowledge, and that we can use this test as a comparison with other school districts to assess what programs are working.”
Walsh said Wilson had not studied the bill making its way through the Legislature, “but he takes a dim view of it.”
That was a surprise to the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblywoman Carole Migden of San Francisco. She said yesterday that she had been negotiating with Wilson’s staff for several weeks on how to make the bill acceptable to the governor.
“It’s fair to say that there are differences in our view of some details of the bill,” Migden said. “But it has been my impression that the governor has been favorbly predisposed to exempt children who do not speak English.”
Migden said she is willing to compromise on several aspects of her bill, including how many months of English instruction children should have before taking the test in English.
“My goal is to avoid a very demoralizing, fruitless experience for these kids,” she said.
In San Francisco, 5,726 schoolchildren who speak little English were not given the state exam this spring. Among them was 10-year- old Rosa Berviz, a Nicaraguan who arrived here last year. She has been going to Ortega Elementary School in the Ocean View district since September.
Rosa, who hopes to become a doctor or professor someday, said she would have “felt nervous” taking the test in English.
Speaking in Spanish, she added, “But I think we should take the test in English anyway. I would have liked that because I think we should learn English.”
Lawyers for the state Department of Education and the Board of Education said they had not decided whether to appeal Garcia’s ruling, because there are only two weeks until the end of school in San Francisco.
The time it took to resolve the dispute with San Francisco had infuriated Wilson. His office yesterday released an angry letter dated April 3 in which he accused state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin of using delaying tactics to make it impossible for San Francisco to give the test.
Although Eastin participated in the suit against San Francisco, she made it clear that she was doing so only because the law requires her Department of Education to take action against the rebellious district.
“For the past three months, you have hesitated, procrastinated, and then balked in fulfilling that obligation” to ensure all students are tested, Wilson told Eastin.
Doug Stone, Eastin’s spokesman, called the accusation “silly and outrageous.”
“We didn’t delay,” he said. “All 1,000 school districts, including San Francisco, gave this test. That’s more than 4 million kids, and less than 6,000 won’t take it. Those are pretty good numbers in anyone’s ballpark.”