Original URL: http://www.bostonherald.com/news/local_regional/mcas02172003.htm

Bilingual students now mandated to take MCAS
The Boston Herald
by Kevin Rothstein
Monday, February 17, 2003

All but the newest immigrant students who speak limited English must take the MCAS test this spring, according to a new state Department of Education directive ending the exemption.

While all students in this year's senior class must pass the MCAS exam to graduate, the change means kids of all grades must take the test this spring no matter what their English skill level.

The Ed Department changed the rules late last week to meet new requirements calling for English testing of all students. The need for testing was imposed by the state Question 2 ballot question and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, said department spokeswoman Heidi Perlman.

``This is what the voters asked for,'' Perlman said. ``Both require that all students be tested in English.''

There are more than 40,000 students with limited English skills in the state. Those who had been enrolled in a U.S. school for three years or less did not have to take the exam.

That exemption changed to cover only those students first enrolled in an American school by Oct. 1 of the current school year. New federal law limits the number of exempt students to just 5 percent of a school's population.

While most students have been taking the MCAS test, the new requirement raises the likelihood that those non-English speakers taking the exam for the first time will fail. Critics fear that will depress scores at schools that have struggled to bring low MCAS test scores up.

``I think you're going to see a major academic catastrophe,'' said Michelle Esposito-Flynn, an administrator for Revere's bilingual program. ``I think it's going to drag the district down. Where you've seen an improvement over the last three years, you'll probably see a decrease.''

Revere has about 420 kids in its bilingual program. Esposito-Flynn estimated one-quarter of those students might not pass the MCAS test on the first try.

``I think they're forcing them to take a test that they're not ready to take,'' she said.

With state and federal aid riding on test score outcomes, Esposito-Flynn said it remains to be seen whether the drop in test scores would affect the resources sent to local schools.

Perlman said any increase in the failure rate would be helped by the state's ``aggressive retesting program'' as well as tutorial services and other helpful programs.

``We're pretty comfortable through our retesting program these students should be able to get over the bar if they don't make (it the first time),'' she said.

Other critics said the change would exacerbate a problem they already blame on the MCAS: rising numbers of kids being held back a grade.

Roger Rice, head of the Somerville-based Multicultural Education Training and Advocacy organization, predicted schools would hold back more English-language learners for fear they would drag down test scores.

``The impact of this will be more kids will be held back,'' Rice said. ``Kids will be held back in third grade because they need to pass the MCAS in fourth grade.''

The MCAS rule change is the first significant educational shift attributed to the passing last year of Question 2, the ballot question that will force a shake-up of bilingual education in the state. The rest of the requirements will not go into effect until next year, though.

Beginning next year, foreign students will learn English through immersion rather than over longer periods of time.