TUSD drafts office staff to help give English tests


 By Sarah Garrecht Gassen
TUSD must test the English language skills of about 12,000 students - about 5,000 more than last year - to comply with a federal requirement to make sure non-native speakers are learning English quickly.
The additional testing of students has drafted central office employees to become temporary testers.
Arizona schools used to be able to choose one of four brands of language assessment tests, but this year they all must use the same test so the government can measure year to year if students are learning English rapidly enough.
The new Stanford English Language Proficiency, or SELP, test requires that all English-language learners take the reading, writing and oral tests each year, and it gives a composite score. Previously, students who passed the oral test didn't take it the following year when they took the reading and writing exams again in some Arizona districts, including TUSD and Sunnyside Unified.
The change has created a crunch in TUSD, because about 5,000 students must now take the oral portion of the new test, and each student takes 15 to 30 minutes to assess one-on-one, said Steven Holmes, interim director for TUSD language acquisition.
Tucson Unified School District has trained about 140 employees from the district headquarters and other nonschool sites to give the oral portion of the new test.
"I usually just see the data at the end, and this is where it starts," said one of the testers drafted, Rick Haan, interim director for accountability and research. He was helping monitor fourth-graders taking the listening test at Miller Elementary Tuesday. "Sometimes when you look at the data and you think this or that school isn't doing well - here you see what is really happening and what teachers are doing."
The moonlighting testers, who received training on how to give the test, assessed about 130 students at the Southwest Side Miller Elementary.
Students sat at tables in the library and listened to a tape recording of a woman's voice asking questions. During part of the test, the students heard words like "pin" and "card" and marked which picture in their booklet matched the word.
Fifth-grader Jennifer Torreblanca said learning English has been difficult. She's been learning English for three years.
"It is hard. You get messed up because your mom speaks in Spanish and you speak English in school," she said. The hardest part of the test was the writing because, she said, she doesn't know that many words.
The SELP test is designed to assess the reading, writing, speaking and listening abilities of students whose first language is not English or kids who live in a home where English is not the only language spoken.
Students also need to gain a "proficient" score on an oral language-assessment test to be able to enroll in a bilingual classroom if they are under 10 years of age.
School officials said they don't yet know if a "proficient" on the prior test is equivalent to a "proficient" on the SELP test, but the new test appears, on the surface, to be more thorough and challenging because it's more in-depth, Haan said.
It could be possible for a student to have passed the oral test on the old assessment but not pass it on the SELP test and have to move from a bilingual class to a structured English- immersion class next year, Holmes said.
In a related development, the Arizona Department of Education will announce Dec. 15 whether school districts have made enough progress in teaching English language learners by comparing students' language-assessment test scores from 2002-03 and 2003-04.
Districts whose English-language learners are not picking up English quickly enough will not face consequences this year, but if the students don't improve by the next year the districts will have to come up with a formal improvement plan, said Rolanda Bell, director of evaluation for the Arizona Department of Education.
Arizona students' progress will be measured against state standards, which chart out where English learners should be, such as using single words at the beginning stage to being able to speak in small group discussions at the advanced stage. The standards were approved in early 2004.
Some TUSD schools are offering after-school tutoring for English learners to help them learn a new language while absorbing lessons in math, science and social studies. Miller Elementary will begin tutoring in small groups for 20 students in grades K-2 after classes in January, said Principal Cathi DeSalvo.
"The sooner we can identify them the more proficient they'll be at an earlier age," she said. "We're targeting K-2 because we want them to become proficient as soon as possible, because it will help them be better readers and writers later."
● Contact reporter Sarah Garrecht Gassen at 573-4117 or at sgassen@azstarnet.com.