Feds ease testing progress requirements for limited-English students
Associated Press
Feb. 19, 2004 10:20 AM

WASHINGTON - Schools are getting more flexibility in how they test and measure the progress of students with limited English skills as the Bush administration again tries to address concerns over the government's education overhaul.

A policy announced Thursday offers two broad changes for some of the 5.5 million public school students learning English as a second language. In turn, many districts and schools may find it easier to make yearly progress goals and avoid federal penalties under the No Child Left Behind Law.

In their first year at a U.S. school, students with limited English skills will be allowed to take only a test in how well they know the language. That means the formerly required test in reading and writing academic ability will become optional.

Schools could count these students toward meeting the law's test participation rate, but their reading and math scores would not have to count in school performance.

The goal is to give teachers and students more time for English instruction. But the change will take pressure off schools that get poverty aid and face penalties for failing to show enough gains among students in major racial, ethnic and other subgroups.

The second change will allow schools to consider students as having limited English skills for as long as two years after these students become proficient and leave the language program.

The point is to address a common complaint from states and schools: that English learners will never show enough math or reading achievement because their group includes only students further behind, not the ones who improve and leave it.

"We've very pleased that they are making this move," said Michele McLaughlin, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers, which has criticized the department's enforcement of the law. "This was flexibility they had already given on a piecemeal basis to basically any state that was smart enough to ask for it."

The policy changes take effect immediately. The public will have a chance to comment before a final regulation is issued.

Some schools have ended up on a public needs improvement list and have had to offer transfers or private tutoring, based solely on the scores of English learners. Those scores are bound to go up when two years worth of tests from better English students are thrown in.

But an Education Department official familiar with the change said it makes sense because even students who pass English-language tests still have limited English skills in math and reading content.

English language learners in U.S. schools speak more than 400 languages, although 80 percent of them speak Spanish as their primary language.

The nonpartisan Center on Education Policy's recent review of the law revealed many educators considered the rules for English learners, and those for disabled students, to be unreasonable. The department has now issued changes in both areas over the last three months, reflecting a willingness, its leaders say, to respond to states and districts.

"We are listening to their issues and ideas for improvement as the law
continues to be implemented," Education Secretary Rod Paige said. "Our goal is to provide the maximum flexibility while remaining faithful to the spirit
of the law."

That law is causing many states concerns about its costs and requirements. Almost 20 are considering different ways to opt out the law, jeopardizing
some federal dollars.


On the Net:

Education Department on the law: http://www.ed.gov/nclb/

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