Test policy costs S.F. schools

District loses state funds because it won't give exam to students with limited English

The San Francisco Unified School District’s belief that testing children who speak little English is pointless and damages self-esteem has cost the district $640,000 in new state funds aimed at educating those very students.

The state Department of Education ruled that San Francisco is ineligible for the funding because it won’t comply with a state law requiring all public school students, regardless of their English proficiency, to take a statewide exam in English, according to a letter obtained by The Examiner.

San Francisco school officials received the letter Wednesday from Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco.

The loss of funds – up to $200 for every limited-English child enrolled – comes at a time when the district has been forced to cut $20 million from its budgets this year and last. More than 30 percent of San Francisco’s 64,000 students are learning English as a second language.

Oakland was the only other district in California to be denied the funds because it doesn’t test limited-English speakers.

The two Bay Area districts – which lost $1.2 million collectively – test only those students who speak English fluently or have had instruction in English for at least three years.

Migden, chairwoman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, agrees it’s inappropriate to test children in a language they don’t understand.

In fact, she wrote legislation that was vetoed last year that would have exempted those limited-English students who had been in school for less than a year from taking the test. But, Migden said, the district has a price to pay for noncompliance.

“At the same time the district is poor-mouthing the state for more money, it takes these stands that end up costing it a lot,” Migden said.

San Francisco school board President Mary Hernandez said the district will likely challenge the state Education Department’s decision.

“It’s disturbing news and we will have our legal counsel review it,” Hernandez said. “However, I still believe that we made the right moral decision. There is no value whatsoever in testing children in a language they don’t understand. There is evidence that it may actually harm them. So, I’d say to the Department of Education: Our principles are not for sale.”

In April 1998, San Francisco schools sued the state to exempt non-English speakers from taking the exam. Since then, The City’s schools have excluded students who, in nearly 1,000 districts across the state, would have been tested.

Ignoring Prop. 227

San Francisco also has ignored 1998’s voter-approved Proposition 227, which requires students to be taught in English. The district continues to offer bilingual instruction.

“San Francisco Unified is engaged in a classic education coverup,” said Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author of Prop. 227. “They want the government’s money. They claim their programs are working. But they refuse to test kids. So no one will ever know the results.

“It’s a tremendous shame that San Francisco will not allow the public to know whether the limited-English kids are learning and whether their programs are working. It’s extremely positive that the Department of Education is withholding funding.”

Across the state, 904,621 students with limited English took the exam in English in the spring of 1999. Four million students in second through 11th grades took the exam. This is the third year for the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program.

Results of the exam, released in July, are used to rank about 8,000 schools in nearly 1,000 districts and determine whether there are year-to-year academic gains.

STAR test as condition

Last year, the state enacted a bill to allocate funding to eligible school districts that teach English to students who can’t speak it.

Participating school districts are eligible to receive $100 for every student enrolled in such a program and another $100 for students who are reclassified as fluent in English.

As a condition of the funding, school districts must use the STAR test.

San Francisco school board member Juanita Owens said the district is being unfairly penalized.

“The position we took as a district is correct,” Owens said. “Of course, I’m very concerned we’re being penalized by being denied funds we should have.”

Migden said her office has questioned the Department of Education’s decision and asked for a separate opinion from the legislative counsel.

She advised San Francisco school officials to “ask your legal counsel to review the eligibility language for this funding.”

State Department of Education spokesman Doug Stone said that based on the department’s reading of the law, “San Francisco is not testing these kids, so they are not able to receive any of the funds.”

The test is administered in English only because of the insistence of former Gov. Pete Wilson, who signed the testing law. Gov. Davis has done nothing to revise that law.

Opponents, led by the San Francisco district, argued that testing students in a language they don’t understand violates state education law and is flagrantly discriminatory. The district has prevailed in the courts so far.

A trial date has been set for Aug. 14 in San Francisco Superior Court.

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