Districts' results mixed for English-language learners
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 16, 2004

Mel MelÚndez




Several high-achieving Valley school districts failed to pass the state's latest school accountability measure - educating English-language learners. The Arizona Department of Education released Wednesday its "Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives," the latest offshoot of the federal No Child Left Behind accountability act. It assesses how Title III school districts fare in mainstreaming ELL students, and preparing those students to pass the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards test and the state's English-language proficiency exam.

Only school districts, not individual schools, were judged by the state. This year, 132 of Arizona's 236 public school districts, and 29 public charter schools, accepted nearly $15 million in Title III funds.

The results show that Valley schools were all over the map. Former "low-performing" school districts, such as Phoenix Elementary and Phoenix Union made the grade, while "overachieving" school districts, such as Scottsdale and Gilbert, failed to make the cut. Failure to meet the state requirements over several years could result in the state takeover of districts' Title III programs. Hence, seventeen school districts, including Gilbert, Glendale Union, Paradise Valley, Peoria, Tempe Elementary and Tempe Union are appealing.

Proponents of the measure say the assessment is long overdue because English-language learners often trail native English speakers in academics. They cite Arizona's abysmal track record of graduating minority students, including English-language learners, as an example. They hope the annual assessments will spark change in how some districts educate ELL students. "What you value, you assess, and what you assess, you get," said Margaret Garcia-Dugan, the Department of Education's associate superintendent for academic achievement. "ELL kids are the ones who often fall through the cracks. But districts will finally have to show that they're making progress with these kids. That's good."

However, school district officials call the assessment "unrealistic" because it requires them to show gains of 10 percent annually in each of the three areas. "That's high. Yes, we should demonstrate we're using Title III money wisely," said Debbie Ortiz, Phoenix Elementary's director of language and literacy. "But the goals have to be reasonable and pouring-on additional goals without helping us financially seems unfair." Nearly 60 percent of the district's 8,000 students are ELL.

Garcia-Dugan said there's a high probability the state could change the 10 percent increase requirement in the future.

"I could see where a district at 80 percent achievement could see hitting 90 percent as ambitious," she said.

The new assessment could cause some school districts to forgo Title III funds altogether because the services needed to meet the state's expectations could prove costly. At least one Phoenix Union High School District governing board member, Harry Garewal, asked district staff to review the matter.

"The costs linked to this new accountability requirement could far exceed what we receive," he said at a board meeting. "So from my perspective, accepting these funds may not make sense."

Other school districts, especially those with shrinking enrollment, such as Phoenix Elementary, can't afford to pass up the federal funds. The district, which receives about $234,000 in Title III funds, was one of two dozen Valley school districts that passed the accountability measure. For Phoenix Elementary and Phoenix Union, both inner-city school districts with many ELL students, making the grade was a breath of fresh air. Phoenix Union receives $430,000 annually in Title III funds. It has 24,000 students, about 22 percent of them ELL.

"We're naturally thrilled to have done well this year," said Art Lebowitz, Phoenix Union's assistant superintendent for instruction and accountability. "But our students are older, which will make meeting those annual benchmarks a formidable challenge."

Ortiz agrees.

"I taught high school for 26 years, and when kids arrive at 16 after not being in school for five years, it's like trying to catch a moving train," she said. "It's very, very difficult to get them up to speed. So high school districts will definitely have a harder time with this."

Still, parent Dalila Miramontes, a Spanish speaker, welcomed the accountability measure.

"It's important because it shows us if schools are doing a good job of teaching English to our kids," said Miramontes, whose daughters Adriana and Paola attend Herrera Elementary in Phoenix. "English is the language of success, so kids need to learn it well."

Reach the reporter at mel .melendez@arizonarepublic..