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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 14, 2006

Test exemption expanded to all states

By Ben Feller
Associated Press

Margaret Spellings

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WASHINGTON The Education Department gave states final permission yesterday to leave out the test scores of newly enrolled, limited-English kids when grading schools.

The goal is to give schools extra time to work with limited-English students before being held accountable for their yearly progress. Schools welcome the offer because it helps them meet goals and avoid penalties under the No Child Left Behind law.

The policy applies only to students who have been in a U.S. school for less than a year. States may exempt their math and reading scores when measuring yearly progress.

Though freshly repackaged, the flexibility is not new. States have been allowed to exempt test scores on a case-by-case basis since 2004, when former Education Secretary Rod Paige announced the draft policy. Forty of them now do it.

Hawai'i has been one of the 40 states participating in these policies, but while it has been valuable to leave non-English-speaking students out of the testing for their first year in the country, some principals say it's not enough.

"It has been a help but it still doesn't solve the problem," said Palolo Elementary principal Ruth Silberstein, whose school enrollment contains a large number of Micronesian students who struggle with English.

"You need English proficiency in order to understand what you're doing on an English test, and one year is not enough," said Silberstein. "Just saying one year and then you can count them does not address the problem.

"Our goal is to make them proficient as soon as possible, but students differ. Some people say it takes two to three years, some say five to six for proficiency. A test for English proficiency should be given first before they participate in testing for adequate yearly progress (under No Child Left Behind.)"

Catherine Payne, principal at Farrington High where about 600 students or about one-quarter of the student body are non-native English speakers, agreed that fluency can't always be expected in a year.

"There's a lot of research that says it takes several years to feel comfortable in a new language," she said. "Even children who have been in the U.S. for a year are not proficient enough to take a reading test in 10th or 11th grade. And for the older ones, 16 and 17, it's even harder."

On top of that, because there are so many new students who don't speak English coming in to Farrington, Payne said the school has had to mainstream the more proficient students sooner than they want to, even though they don't have a perfect grasp of the language.

"We used to keep students for maybe one additional period with intensive English instruction," she said, "but all those teachers have to work exclusively with the students who aren't proficient at all." She has hired additional tutors and part-time teachers to join regular education classrooms to help out when non-native speakers continue to need assistance.

The final version of the new policy, announced yesterday by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, opens the offer to all states. It also adds language to ensure that students learning English aren't ignored.

"We recognize that there are legitimate issues when students move to this country not speaking English," Spellings said. "They do need to have some sort of adequate time to get up to speed."

Spellings spoke about the policy to reporters before announcing it at a conference of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials in Washington.

Roughly 5.4 million public school students are learning English as a second language.

Under the plan, newly enrolled students must take their state test in math, but not in reading, in the first year. In both subjects, their scores may be exempted for that year, and states must disclose to the public how many children have been left out of the reading test.

The new rule also makes clear that schools should not try to turn it into a free pass. They must still help limited-English students master English language and content.

Robert McClelland, who heads the DOE's System Evaluation and Reporting section, said the state has been participating in this since it received a waiver in 2004, and this final approval of the policy won't change Hawai'i scores.

"We do most of this already," said McClelland. "This doesn't change who gets counted."

Spellings' announcement finalizes one other change that's proved popular with states. Schools can consider students as "limited-English students" and include them in progress reports that way up to two years after these children have proven they know the language.

Schools campaigned for that. Principals say they could never show yearly progress for their group of limited-English kids if they couldn't include the ones who had succeeded.

Paige first offered that policy in 2004, too, and 40 states have been using it since.

Advertiser education writer Beverly Creamer contributed to this report.