Several thousand students across Massachusetts may benefit from a federal rule change that says new immigrants no longer have to take state English tests during their first school year in the United States.
In Worcester, for example, 1,000 to 1,500 students are new immigrants this school year and will not have to take the English MCAS this spring, school officials there said. Students still have to take the MCAS in math, but they can get help in their native language, and the scores won't count on a schoolwide report.
The rule change, announced Thursday by US Secretary of Education Roderick R. Paige, marks a victory for immigration and education groups that have complained in recent years that it was unfair for the government to require students with limited English abilities to take such tests. Under the change, new students who are enrolled for less than one academic year will be asked to take proficiency tests to help educators gauge their literacy level.
The move doesn't erase all concerns about the testing of students who don't speak English, but the change pleases school officials who have fretted that new immigrants' test scores hurt their schools' performance in state and national ratings.
"The department has finally listened to what a number of people have said," said Michael Contompasis, chief operating officer of Boston public schools. "As newcomers to the country, there's no way . . . they can be assessed in English language arts until they become proficient."
Until now, test scores for those learning English were included with the total for their schools. The result was that schools with large immigrant populations consistently scored poorly on the English portion of state tests, undermining the school's ability to make "adequate yearly progress," required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The law, signed by President Bush in 2002, requires annual testing of children in grades three to eight and penalizes schools that fail to make annual progress. Failing schools can lose funding and risk state takeover.
It's unclear how many children could be affected, but statewide, 193,030, about 20 percent of students, are learning English as their second language. In Worcester, nearly half of those who do not speak English are new immigrants. Boston public schools have 5,800 students whose first language is not English. School officials could not say how many children are new to the country.
"I think it's a change that contains a lot of common sense," said state Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll. "When we went through our review, I strongly objected to the idea that we were required to test all kids, even kids who just came into the country."
But educators say that the changes don't fix some of the most unfair requirements of the federal education standards. The law does not require states to test children in their native language, nor does it give students the five to seven years educators say is needed for most students to become proficient in English.
"You will still have a group that, by and large, will be labeled failing" when compared with their US-born peers, said Monty Neill, executive director of Fairtest, a Cambridge group that opposes using results of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests as the sole criteria of educational success.
Catherine A. Boudreau, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said the US Department of Education's new policy is a "baby step in the right direction." Under the new policies, which take effect immediately, the new immigrants will have the option of taking the reading and language part on their state exams or not taking them at all. If students take the tests, states may, but don't have to, count the results as part of their report to the federal government, according to the US Education Department.Offering that option is a moot point in Massachusetts, because Driscoll said he won't require students who don't speak English to be included in the state's tally. States could wait two years to include the exempted students. Until then, students with limited English skills would be tested only in how well they know English.
Stephen Mills, Worcester's deputy school superintendent, said the old policies were punitive. "It's a form of child abuse to require students to take this test when we know they're going to fail," he said.
Mills said it's inevitable that Worcester's scores will improve because of the change. Neill and others aren't so sure. The option that allows districts to delay including English learners' scores will mean that scores will fall the third year a student is enrolled.
"They will no longer be considered" to have limited proficiency in English, said Raul Gonzalez, legislative director of La Raza, a national Hispanic civil rights organization. "That will deflate [schools'] overall scores. Schools that do a good job helping kids learn English will look bad on their reading and math."
Megan Tench of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Suzanne Sataline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.