Washington Post
January 26, 2007

by Maria Glod

The Fairfax County School Board last night defied the U.S. Department of Education -- and challenged the No Child Left Behind Act -- by declining to force thousands of immigrant students to take a federally mandated test because local educators think it is unfair.

Fairfax school officials said they will continue to test how well those students are learning to read, speak and write English and will report those results. But this year they will not, as the federal government requires, give the students reading exams that cover the same grade-level material as tests taken by peers who are native-English speakers.

"It is wrong for our students to take a test they are predisposed to fail," said board member Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence). "We will continue to test their proficiency twice a year and continue to move them forward as quickly as possible. This resolution is not, by any stretch, an attempt to shy away from accountability."

The bold step taken in Fairfax, a highly regarded school system that is also the nation's 13th-largest, puts Virginia at the forefront of a growing debate over the best way to measure the progress of millions of students across the country who are learning English as a second language. The Harrisonburg school board passed a similar measure, and Arlington County school officials are considering such a step.

"This will help build political pressure to find a sensible solution where you keep accountability, but you test kids fairly," said John F. Jennings, president and chief executive of the District-based Center on Education Policy. "Schools are saying it makes no sense to test kids who don't understand English. The U.S. Department of Education is saying that they should be tested the same way as other students. There has to be a third way."

The Virginia Department of Education has asked the federal government to allow use of the old test for another year, so there is time to develop an alternative. The state is awaiting an answer. Fairfax and other localities say that a deferral would be the best short-term solution. Across Virginia, about 10,200 students are affected by the change, state education officials said. About 4,000 are in Fairfax.

The dispute between Virginia and federal officials, which comes as Congress prepares to debate renewal of the five-year-old No Child law, began last summer when the U.S. Department of Education found problems with the way Virginia and 17 other states test students learning English. Often, they said, the exams were not demanding enough.

Testing programs for English learners in Maryland and the District have withstood federal scrutiny.

Federal officials say that all students in a given state must be held to the same standards regardless of whether English is their native language. An Education Department spokesman said that its mandated test helps pinpoint areas where students are struggling and identifies successful teaching methods. Federal officials also stress that students can be allowed accommodations, such as extra time or the use of a bilingual dictionary.

Supporters of the federal provision also say that it forces school districts to focus on students who need extra help to catch up with their classmates. "We don't want English-language learners to be left out of education," said Peter Zamora, acting regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "If you remove this set of standards from the No Child Left Behind accountability system, you are removing the incentive to teach them."

Educators in several states, including Virginia, say they agree that schools should be held to high standards. But they say that children who lack mastery of the language aren't prepared for grade-level exams that could include questions about similes and metaphors or imagery in a poem. The state instead measures progress such students learning English make by using tests that have a range of difficulty. Once students learn enough English, usually after a few years, they take the same reading tests as their peers.

"It's not like we're trying to escape the law," said Arlington School Superintendent Robert G. Smith. "We're trying to escape something that represents, in my mind, a fairly reprehensible practice. If a kid reads with so little understanding, we're not going to take away anything from their responses."

Federal law requires testing every year in reading and math in grades 3 through 8. It also requires schools to show that groups of high school students, including limited-English students and ethnic groups, are making progress toward being 100 percent proficient by 2014. The government exempts immigrant students who have been in a U.S. school for less than a year from taking standard grade-level reading tests.

Prince William County school officials, who passed a resolution expressing concern about the tests, plan to give immigrant students the federally mandated tests. But teachers will be watching each student and will stop those who appear too stumped to continue, said Carol Bass, supervisor of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

Last night, Fairfax School Board members said that its decision will likely mean that many county schools won't meet federal standards under the No Child law.

Board member Stephen M. Hunt (At Large), who cast the sole vote against the measure on the 12-member board, said he thinks the test scores can help educators find areas where instruction can be improved. "You get back data on what they are not understanding or not learning," he said.