Excuses have run out this spring for nearly 45,000 Texas public school students who have never taken state exams because they’re not fluent in English.
A new state law is forcing them to take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, a development that is worrying elementary and middle school teachers, principals and district officials all over the state.
And, beginning Tuesday, all limited–English students will have to take a new reading proficiency test in English, separate from the TAAS.
In the Dallas school district, officials said the change in TAAS testing rules, at worst, could result in as many as 73 schools – a third of its campuses – being rated low-performing by the Texas Education Agency. Last year, nine campuses received that rating, which is based in part on TAAS scores.
At the least, Dallas officials said, the more than 4,000 additional students taking the exam could result in 19 low-performing schools.
“It is very scary,” said Dr. William Webster , the Dallas school district’s deputy superintendent of evaluation and accountability. “The problem is, it’s also something we’re going to have to get out to the public somehow.”
In past years, students learning English as their second language could be excused from taking the TAAS – for up to three years in a row.
Principals and teachers in the Dallas–Fort Worth area say the state has created an insurmountable challenge for some students. Not all of them, even though they are U.S. citizens, can understand the questions on the state tests.
But legislators and state education officials said that although the new law may be a bitter pill, it is necessary medicine. They said many of the children never should have been exempted from testing.
“It’s going to put pressure on schools to do more for these students,” said Maria Medina Seidner , the Texas Education Agency’s director of bilingual education. “A lot of these programs and services aren’t being provided the way they should.”
Most of the affected students will take their first TAAS exams ever in April, in reading and math. Students in fourth and eighth grades already took the TAAS writing test in February.
This spring, all non-immigrant students in third through eighth grades must take the TAAS, in Spanish or English. Next year, the exemption rule will end for most other immigrant students. Only those who have been in U.S. schools for less than 12 months will be allowed to skip the tests.
The largest group affected will be Spanish-speakers, who make up the vast majority of limited-English students in Texas and in Dallas. Hispanic students are 52 percent of the Dallas student body.
The next largest language group statewide is Vietnamese.
Teachers and principals said they agree that one positive result of the law could be a brighter spotlight on bilingual education programs. Inconsistency in the amount of English or Spanish used in teaching, even within the same school, is a common complaint, they said. Districts, in many cases, don’t set standards for bilingual instruction, they said.
Lucy Davila-Hakemack , principal at Reagan Elementary in West Oak Cliff, said the law may lead to children receiving English instruction sooner. Ultimately, students will be judged in English because bilingual education ends before they reach middle school, she said.
“Anybody can move to this country and not have to learn English,” Ms. Davila-Hakemack said. “TV is in Spanish. The stores, everybody speaks Spanish. But we have got to get our kids into English.”
At nearby L.O. Donald Elementary, principal Israel Garcia said some students are weak in Spanish, their native language, when they enroll. His school this year will test 84 students who were exempted last year. About 300 students in all will take the tests.
“We haven’t given up,” Mr. Garcia said. “We still have a month.”
L.O. Donald Elementary teacher Alacia Harris tutors seven of her fourth-grade students after school because they had problems with a practice TAAS test.
At a recent tutoring session, classical music played softly, and the students sat in a circle, giggling and counting off numbers as part of a math game. Ms. Harris said she purposely uses the music and games to help students relax, though she also uses “Pruebas de Practica para TAAS,” a practice test book.
The pressure on students – and teachers – is intense, she and other teachers at the school said.
At this stage, Ms. Harris said her students should be learning more English, but they come to her more literate in Spanish. She said she juggles the tasks of preparing them to take the TAAS in Spanish and finding time to instruct them in English. In fifth grade, English becomes the sole language of instruction.
“These children need more time before they do standardized testing,” Ms. Harris said. “We’re asking them to be miracle children.”
Dr. Webster, the Dallas deputy superintendent, said he supports the move to test more students. But the public also needs to understand that this year’s TAAS results won’t necessarily mean that the quality of instruction has declined in a given school; scores will show the effect of testing more students, he said.
Some have said that legislators weren’t thinking enough of the students when they passed the new law.
The changes set an “inappropriate expectation” for students, said Dr. Priscilla Kimery , Plano schools’ director of research and evaluation.
In Plano, middle school students will take the TAAS in English because that’s the language of their classes – Plano doesn’t offer bilingual education after fifth grade. But some middle school students may be too weak in English to understand the test, Dr. Kimery said.
Bilingual coordinators across North Texas met with state Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, earlier in the school year to “educate him on the impact it will have on our students,” added Patsy Robles-Goodwin , Plano’s coordinator of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language programs. Mr. Garcia authored the bill that created the new rules.
“The intent was accountability . . . but the reality is that it is going to hurt a lot of students,” Ms. Robles-Goodwin said.
The lawmaker disagreed, saying students already were being hurt by not taking the test. Mr. Garcia said he has heard that some schools’ ratings were being skewed because the highly rated campuses did not test 20 percent to 40 percent of limited-English students.
“The students were falling into black holes and not heard from until the ninth or 10th grade when they dropped out,” Mr. Garcia said.
Some principals and teachers said authors of the law need to visit their schools to see why the changes can be harmful.
At Forestridge Elementary School in the Richardson school district, about 70 students will take the TAAS for the first time next month, principal Roger Holland said. Their native languages include Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese.
When they were given practice tests in English, students would “just sit there and stare at it,” he said.
“The students will feel like failures, but they are good students,” he said, adding that the students need more time to become proficient in English. Some principals said they also don’t like the state’s decision to add the new reading test this month. Ms. Seidner of the TEA said the purpose of the reading proficiency test is to give the state an idea of students’ skills in English and thus show whether they are ready to take the TAAS.
Mr. Garcia, the principal at L.O. Donald Elementary, said he is concerned that the new test requires some students who don’t speak a word of English to be tested in English.
Still, parent Maria Ramirez said she’s not worried about all the rule changes.
“Everybody should take the exam because it’s a skill for them,” said Mrs. Ramirez, mother of 10-year-old Arnulfo in Ms. Harris’ class. “It’s to encourage them to learn.”
Liliana Aguirre, 10, who goes to the tutoring sessions at L.O. Donald, said she is a little nervous about the upcoming tests.
“I think I’m going to get a bad grade,” Liliana said.
But the girl, who said she loves tutoring, said she also understands why she has to take the TAAS.
“Maybe it’s to tell teachers how you are learning,” she said.