Test sets a standard for English learners

SANTA ANA, Calif.—Schools for the first time are giving a uniform state test meant to check both the fluency and progress of students learning English—a group that makes up almost a third of Orange County students.

The California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, will help pinpoint who is being successful teaching children English in a state where the number of students becoming fluent has remained flat for three years and a maze of rules and tests that vary from district to district makes it hard to determine what works and what doesn’t. A single standard will also help schools place students in the right classes when they transfer. Finding what works is crucial: Children will have to take the high school exit exam in English to graduate, and their job prospects and college options are diminished if they fail to learn English.

“For the first time, there’s going to be statewide accountability for these students in acquiring English,” said Jeanette Spencer, the state Department of Education’s lead consultant for the test.

The task of finishing testing by Tuesday’s deadline has been daunting.

Orange County schools have scrambled to complete testing of more than 146,000 children. Schools on year-round schedules, such as in Anaheim and Santa Ana, started the testing in May. Some districts, like Garden Grove and Buena Park, gave the exam in summer school. Westminster tested kids on a Saturday earlier this month.

“It was a humongous challenge,” said Howard Bryan, Santa Ana’s director of English Language Development and bilingual education.

But through the effort, school administrators are learning more about students’ needs _ and program faults.

Spencer said she found that some districts appeared to be flouting the law, which requires districts to measure students’ English level when they begin school _ although the state provided little monitoring. Some district administrators asked why they had to give the test when their teachers could see how well students spoke English.

“English learners were languishing in a program where they may or may not have been getting services,” Spencer said. “They were languishing with a label.”

Orange County districts say the test will allow schools to better assess students— crucial to assigning them to the right classes. While the test will be the main criteria for determining a child’s fluency, districts will still use other measures, including Stanford 9 and teacher observations, to decide if children can keep up in regular classes.

Santa Ana Unified, where about two-thirds of students are learning English, found discrepancies in how schools monitor students in a self-inventory that it finished Friday, Bryan said.

A Santa Ana parent leader who is pushing for better English instruction said he thinks a uniform test will help.

“If they give the test, we will know the reality of where our children are,” said Venancio Chavez, who has two children in Santa Ana schools.

In Newport-Mesa Unified, a report issued by the federal Office for Civil Rights last week found the district had failed to “consistently and effectively” assess students’ proficiency at TeWinkle Middle School, a problem that exists at other schools as well. Jaime Castellanos, assistant superintendent, said teachers picked from different tests, so measures could vary from one third-grade class to the next.

“I think the exam is kind of a godsend for us and other districts as well,” Castellanos said.

Still, it’s time-consuming and costly.

The state is paying $1.50 for each test, but local administrators say it costs districts at least $15 to give. Districts hired extra employees and bought transcription machines, worth $100 to $200 each. Anaheim City School District _ which has the second-highest percentage of English-language learners _ doubled its full-time testing team to 12 people and gave extra hours to another 25 employees in the past two months.

At Revere Elementary, Isabel Mora has given the test full-time since the summer. She has tested more than 900 children—roughly 15 to 20 students a day—listening to answers and transcribing tapes.

One morning last week, Mora found different abilities among three fourth-graders. One girl, who appeared to be at an intermediate level, could follow instructions to look in certain directions, but couldn’t point a pencil at an object. She repeated words, but had trouble following a story on a tape. Two other fourth-graders, who just began at the school, stared at Mora as she asked questions, showing they are at a beginning level.

Educators say this thorough test shows them more than they knew before.

“Some kids, I think have been able to slide along through the system because on the surface they appear to be fluent,” said Kathy Enloe, Buena Park’s student programs director. “This test really identifies this type of student who isn’t really functioning and really doesn’t have the depth to understand the language.”

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