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Limited-English school deadline may gain a year
 By Jennifer Sterba

Educators were cautiously optimistic about government policy changes announced Thursday that could give students learning English a one-year reprieve from standardized tests linked to federal funding.
The policy changes affect 21 Tucson schools whose students failed to make academic progress according to federal guidelines. Nineteen schools are in Tucson Unified School District - the largest in Tucson. Seven of those schools are in jeopardy of losing federal dollars paid to schools with high numbers of low-income students if they can't improve within two years.
The new policy states that 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. Those students can still take the AIMS and Stanford 9 tests if they want to, but it won't count toward the school's overall scores.
Federal labeling of schools - as outlined under the No Child Left Behind Act - requires all students, including the disabled and those learning English, to test at grade level or make improvement on state and national achievement tests. Repeated failure of one subgroup of students - such as those learning English - to meet those benchmarks could jeopardize a school's federal funding.
Another policy change would allow the test scores of students who attain English proficiency to still be counted toward the English-learning subgroup for up to two years - allowing the school a chance to show academic progress.
"It may be a positive in terms of increasing our scores," said Anna Rivera, senior academic officer of leadership for Tucson Unified School District. "The flexibility allows schools to concentrate on English fluency - at the same time teaching them the academics."
The policy, which goes into effect immediately, will still count the students toward the federally required test participation rate. But their scores won't count in a school's performance.
Schools with high numbers of students learning English have typically not been able to meet federal testing requirements. There are 5.5 million students learning English as a second language in the United States - 80 percent speak Spanish as their primary language.
"We're very pleased that they're making this move," said Michele McLaughlin, assistant director of the American Federation of Teachers, which has criticized the federal Education Department's enforcement of No Child Left Behind legislation in the past.
Arizona laws measuring school performance don't count test scores from students learning English during their first three years of English instruction.
Nearly 26 percent of Arizonans speak a language other than English at home, according to 2000 census data. The percentage rises to nearly 30 percent in Tucson.
About 30 percent to 50 percent of the students attending TUSD schools failing federal testing guidelines are learning English. But TUSD educators said it's too early to tell if the policy changes go far enough to help those schools escape a repeat failure this year.
Nearly a third of the students at Hohokam Middle School, 7400 S. Settler Road, on the Southwest Side, are labeled English-language learners, according to the district's Web site. Hohokam is one of the seven TUSD schools that have repeatedly failed to meet the federal guidelines.
"I don't know if it's enough a change to be helpful," said Principal John Michel. "It's going to give us a little boost. But I don't know how much."
A curriculum specialist for the school was cautious about what the policy change really means.
"It would depend on the particulars and how it's implemented," said Clint Carlton, who helps on both curriculum and professional development for Hohokam.
While all of Sunnyside Unified School District's schools met their testing goals under federal guidelines, nearly four out of every 10 students in the district are learning English.
"One year is certainly a start," said Jeannie Favela, director of language acquisition and development for Sunnyside. "But I think there needs to be a better understanding of how language acquisition works. Not just oral language, but the deeper English skills students need to succeed academically."
The Associated Press contributed to story. Contact reporter Jennifer Sterba at 573-4191 or jsterba@azstarnet.com.