Perched on a pint-size chair in a carpeted San Francisco classroom, a cheerful and attentive 7-year-old named Diana Luu said taking tests is “fun because you can learn more things and go to a higher level.”
Her mother, Anne Luu, who was born in Vietnam and moved to San Francisco 12 years ago, said from her Tenderloin apartment that Diana’s English is good enough that she should take the state’s English-only exam, given each spring to California’s 4.2 million students in grades two through 11.
But San Francisco school officials and attorneys representing them say Diana and thousands of children of immigrants like her should not be tested in English until they are proficient in the language. Taking the state’s multiple-choice exam will damage the children’s self-esteem, yield invalid test results and violate their civil rights, the attorneys and officials say.
The debate over whether to test children who are not yet fluent in English will begin in a San Francisco courtroom Nov. 6.
The outcome will determine testing policy for some 5,700 kids in San Francisco Unified, the only district in California that refuses to test these children of immigrants. It could also overturn current law that requires testing of the state’s 1.4 million limited-English schoolchildren. And because California educates more than 40 percent of all limited-English kids in the United States, the case will be closely watched by national education policy makers.
“We are watching what’s happening in San Francisco as far as assessment,” said Delia Pompa, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Education in Washington, D.C. “Everyone is talking about assessment and trying to figure out how to include limited-English kids in testing in a way that is valid and fair.”
Tests’ validity, fairness to child
The issues boil down to the validity of the test results and the fairness to the child. As with many education debates, though, this one is highly politicized, with both sides claiming to know what’s best for children, their families and their future.
James Donato, an attorney representing San Francisco Unified, said limited-English children must be given at least three years’ instruction in school before being asked to take a comprehensive English-only exam. Generally, these children speak another language at home and arrive at school with limited or no vocabulary skills, he said.
Wrong answers on the math portion of the exam could mean that the child has insufficient math skills, or that the child can’t yet read in English, Donato said.
“The score is meaningless. Other harms include the impact on students who begin to perceive themselves as underachievers and parents who look at the results and have the perception that their children are not performing,” Donato said.
The state’s education secretary, John Mockler, appointed by Gov. Davis, said, “The governor’s view is that if we do not test these students, institutions will ignore them and they will be shunted aside. By testing these kids, we are finding a baseline for what they know and don’t know. We use that to determine whether the institution or school is providing the necessary services.”
In fact, Davis has been clear on the issue of including such students in testing, saying, “English learners should command more of our attention, not less of our attention.”
‘Most kids will be challenged’
One of the nation’s leading testing experts, H.D. Hoover, who has spent 30 years writing, researching and developing standardized achievement tests, says he prefers not to take sides in the debate over whether to include limited-English kids in testing. Still, he has arrived at some conclusions.
“After watching kids take tests, I do not agree with the notion that the limited-English child is injured by test taking,” said Hoover, professor of education at the University of Iowa and director of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills program, one of the oldest and most widely used sets of tests in the country.
“In fact, I think that’s crazy. It’s saying that if you put a hard problem in front of a child, that he’ll hate school for the rest of his life. Most kids will be challenged. Kids who cry when they take the test are the same kids – English fluent or limited English – who cry when they get an assignment put in front of them they don’t like.”
Hoover added, “Regardless of their language, kids are sensitive to what happens in front of their peers. Think about how it feels for the little kid who knows everyone
else is taking the test. For those who say the kid is better off not being tested because of the emotional impact doesn’t have a very good memory of what it’s like to be a kid.”
Stanford education researcher Kenji Hakuta, who is on the board of the national Education Testing Service, is not convinced that the English-only test would inflict psychological damage, but is certain that the scores of limited-English kids are invalid. Hakuta said, “After kids have been exposed to English, then the test will become meaningful.”
The state’s exam, called the Stanford 9, tests young students in reading, writing and math, and in the higher grades in science, history and social science.
The test scores are posted on the state Department of Education’s Web site and are broken down to show various results, including: English fluent, limited English and by ethnicity and gender. The scores are used by the state to rate schools and dole out financial rewards to those districts and schools that post test score gains.
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. In addition, rewards of up to $25,000 go to teachers working in the lowest performing schools that show the greatest academic gains.
Less than 13 percent of San Francisco public schools are eligible for the cash rewards because they didn’t test enough kids.
San Francisco Unified’s policy of exempting limited-English kids has cost the district $640,000 in state funds aimed at educating those very students. The state Department of Education ruled in April that the district was ineligible because of its noncompliance.
San Francisco was joined in its 1998 lawsuit by districts in Oakland, Berkeley and Hayward. Only San Francisco continues to refuse to test kids. The state unsuccessfully sought a court order to require San Francisco to test all students until the dispute was resolved.
In a decision filed Oct. 13, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Paul H. Alvarado narrowed the legal arguments that San Francisco Unified may use against the state. He 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.
Donato, the school district lawyer, said, “The main claim of Title VI regulations is that you cannot discriminate against students on the basis of race or ethnicity because it creates disparate differentials in their performance that is attributable to their origins or ethnicity.”
But while deciding it is not discriminatory in intent, Alvarado left open the argument of whether it is discriminatory in impact. The judge also left open the issue of the validity of the test as a measurement of academic skills.
San Francisco’s schools chief Arlene Ackerman, who took office Aug. 1, agrees with the district’s policy of not testing kids “who do not have the skills to understand what’s on the test.”
However, Ackerman said, “Now that incentives are a part of the (testing) process, we have reason enough to go back and have a discussion.”
School Board President Mary Hernandez said she is happy the case will soon be heard.
“We are right on track and prepared for trial. I am looking forward to finally getting this issue resolved for the children in our district and throughout the state,” Hernandez said.
87 languages in The City
One in four San Francisco schoolchildren speaks little if any English, a proportion mirrored statewide. Some 87 languages are spoken in The City’s and California’s schools.
At San Francisco’s Bessie Carmichael Elementary, situated South of Market across from the Hall of Justice, the proportion is greater: 54 percent of students at the school lack English skills. Of those, 43 percent are Filipinos and 30 percent are Latinos. All of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because they come from low-income families.
Last year, the school tested 75 percent of its second- through fifth-graders. This year, it expects to test 85 percent.
Principal Amy Talisman, who has been at the school for 11 years, said, “We feel they need the preparation in English so that when they take the test they will succeed.”
Second-grade teacher Susan Cleaver said she expects to excuse 10 of her 18 students from taking the Stanford 9 exam this spring.
“The kids would take it, but it wouldn’t be fair to them because it would not reflect what they know,” Cleaver said.
Two of those children Cleaver expects to excuse said they would like to take the exam.
Taking a break from math exercises, the girls spoke slowly but clearly, in English.
Diana Luu, who is Vietnamese but speaks mostly Chinese at home, reads in English, she said. She has been enrolled at the school since kindergarten and would like to take the test with the other kids, she said.
“I read hard books,” she said.
Seven-year-old Esther Lopez, whose family speaks Spanish at home, has also been at the school since kindergarten. “I like taking tests,” Esther said.
2 parents prefer testing
Esther and Diana’s parents, meantime, said they knew nothing of the school’s plan to exempt their children from testing.
“My daughter speaks Cantonese but she can’t read in it,” said Anne Luu, Diana’s mom. Speaking in clear but halting English, Luu said, “Diana reads in English. Her homework is in English. She understands the meaning of words. I want her to take the test. If you don’t try, you don’t know what level you are at. ”
She added, “If she fail or pass, let’s see. I want to see if she gets better next time.”
Genoveva Lopez, who was born in Mexico, said she would like her daughter, born in the United States, to read, speak and take tests in English.
“She likes the English. She want to read in English. I want it that she take the exam in English,” Lopez said of her daughter Esther.
“I didn’t know that she will not take the test. This is no good. I like it that the kids take the test together, everybody. That way we know in which part she needs help.”