Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/17/education/17EDUC.html?ex=1064788407&ei=1&en=eabf7e8fba54b764

2 English Tests Speak
September 17, 2003
New York Times

THREE years ago, when Ammar Naeem immigrated to Queens from Pakistan and enrolled at Richmond Hill High School, he did not speak English. But he has learned much since then. He has maintained an 87 average, and was named to the school honor society. Through long hours of study, he has passed all the state Regents tests required for a high school diploma in New York, including science, global studies, math and English. His English Regents score was his best, 78. "Now I know how to speak," said Ammar, who hopes to study engineering in college.

But as Ammar enters his senior year, there are many courses he would like to take yet cannot, because he is still stuck taking E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) classes. He cannot get the advanced math or business courses he wants. "E.S.L. classes are boring for me," he complained.

Ammar is stuck because he failed to pass the state's new E.S.L. test, introduced in May. He is hardly alone. In 2002, under the old test given by the city, known as LAB, (Language Assessment Battery), 35 students at Richmond Hill passed; this year, under the new state test, 4 passed.

At Manhattan International, a public high school for immigrants, 28 of 48 seniors passed the old test in 2002; this year 2 of 36 did. A New York City official called the failure rate on the new test "many, many times higher" than that of previous years. Dr. Eric Eversley, superintendent in Freeport, N.Y., agreed, saying, "A dramatically higher number failed."

What is more amazing, and confusing, is that - like Ammar - many of the same students who failed the new E.S.L. test passed their English Regents diploma test. At Richmond Hill, 69 students who failed the new E.S.L. test passed the English Regents test this year. At Manhattan International, 15 who failed the E.S.L. passed the English Regents.

"I don't understand," Ammar said. "Passing the English Regents is supposed to mean I know enough English to graduate. How come I can't get out of E.S.L. classes?"

His E.S.L. teacher, Melanie Fordin, agrees. "It's ludicrous," she said. "One state test says he's proficient in English. The other state test says he's not. It's such a waste to keep students like Ammar segregated in E.S.L. classes." Ms. Fordin questions the scoring of the new state test. "Something's wrong," she said.

If so, it would not be the first time. In June, after two-thirds of students failed the Math A test required for graduation, there was such an outcry that the education commissioner, Dr. Richard P. Mills, threw out the results. A blue ribbon commission last month ordered that the scoring scale be substantially lowered.

Last week, the State Board of Regents ordered a review of the scaling of the new physics test. Until 2002, about 15 percent of physics students - typically the brightest in the state - failed the physics Regents. Since the new physics test was introduced in June 2002, 40 percent have been failing.

Tom Dunn, a state spokesman, noted that a student did not have to pass the E.S.L. test to get a diploma and said the consequences of failing were actually positive because students got more language services. He pointed out that the E.S.L. test included a speaking section, and the Regents test did not. "Students can do better on reading, but poorly on speaking," he said, which might explain why they passed one English test but not the other.

But Ms. Fordin said that the speaking and writing sections were corrected by teachers at the local schools and estimated that at Richmond Hill, as many 100 students passed those sections. Reading and listening sections were multiple choice and sent out to be scored. "We'd like to see the actual tests," she said. "I can't believe only four at our school passed."

There are now so many tests and accountability systems that they often send conflicting messages, and it is not just in New York and not just students like Ammar, who are proficient in English, but not proficient in English. Hundreds of schools in Florida that received "A" grades under Gov. Jeb Bush's state rating system have recently been cited as failing under President George W. Bush's federal rating system.

Dr. Daniel McCann, deputy superintendent in Rye, one of New York's richest, highest-achieving suburbs, recently wrote to Dr. Mills, complaining about how out of whack the state testing system was. He noted that 79 percent of Rye students scored mastery (85 percent or higher) on the state English test; 75 percent scored mastery on the state history test; and 3 percent scored mastery in physics. "The disparity in standards is not reasonable or rational," he wrote, adding that Rye would no longer require the state physics test.

The 56 school districts in Nassau County are now planning to create their own physics final to replace the state test. Upstate, Fairport, Skaneateles, Oswego, Auburn and Jordan-Elbridge are doing the same.

If there is to be so much testing, local officials like Dr. Eversley of Freeport would at least like the results back promptly for planning purposes. He finds that scores arrive months after the tests, often too late to identify students who need extra help or to deploy teachers effectively. Lori Mei, a senior manager for the city schools, wrote in an e-mail message that the results of the old LAB test had been available by June. This time, Dr. Mei wrote, results arrived so late that city officials did not get them to schools until after classes had started and E.S.L. assignments were made.

Sylvia Hernandez, a senior at Manhattan International, is another who passed her English Regents with a 78, but failed the new E.S.L. test. A Colombian immigrant, Sylvia works at a pizzeria after school, takes a college course on Saturdays and hopes to attend New York University next year. "I don't understand how they're grading this," she said.

At Richmond Hill, names of the four students passing the new test were posted in the guidance office this week. At the bottom was the comment, "That's all folks."

"Like it was a Warner Brothers cartoon," Ms. Fordin said.

And while at times it does seem that the state testing system was thought up by Bugs Bunny, Ms. Fordin, who has devoted her career to helping children like Ammar and Sylvia become Americans, thinks she deserves at least as much say about who needs E.S.L. as the new state test.