TUSD says ELL test results are too slow
Arizona Daily Star
April 4, 2007

By George B. Sánchez

 Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/metro/179123

 Nearly two dozen letters went home this week to parents of Ford Elementary School students, informing them that their children would be placed in an English-language learner program.

In the past, the Tucson Unified School District notified parents within the first month of school, instead of later in the school year, or in this case, one month before its end.

TUSD officials said the late announcement is the result of a decision made by state officials requiring all English language assessments to be scored by a private company in Texas.

State education officials said the change ensures consistency with test results, but other local school districts also have dealt with delayed scores because of the new system.

The result of a student's English proficiency test, known as the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment or AZELLA, will determine whether the student is placed in a mainstream, English-immersion or bilingual-education classroom.

"If the school district is going to be held accountable that students are in the proper classroom or program, then we need access to those scores," said Jeannie Favela, director of instructional support for the Sunnyside Unified School District.

When a new student is enrolled at any school in Arizona, parents are required to fill out a home language survey. Parents are asked three questions: What is the primary language used at home? What is the language most often spoken by the student? And what is the language the student first acquired? If the response is anything other than English, by law, the student must be tested for English proficiency,

In the past, school districts had different options to score those tests, which included doing it themselves. However, for the first time this year, the Arizona Department of Education required all AZELLA tests to be scored by Harcourt Assessment Inc. in San Antonio.

The new directive was to ensure tests were scored uniformly, said Amy Rezzonico, an Education Department spokeswoman. She said her agency hasn't received complaints outside those from TUSD.

School districts were told they'd have access to test scores within a week, Favela said.

"That hasn't been the case," she said.

Rezzonico acknowledged there were delays, but said they have since been resolved.

"Initially this year there were problems with the scoring, both with the testing company and districts," she said. "The department has worked diligently with Harcourt to resolve it. Now it's taking no more than 10 days."

Sunnyside, with a student population of 17,000, which includes about 5,200 ELL students, tests about 1,200 new students a year for English proficiency. In the past, oral and reading results were available at the students' schools within five days of taking the test, Favela said. Another team would judge the students' writing.

This year, it typically took more than three weeks to receive test scores from Harcourt, Favela said.

In TUSD, there are about 60,000 students, nearly 8,000 of whom are ELL, said Cathy Amanti, coordinator for the district's language-acquisition department.

This year, 5,600 new students were tested for English proficiency.

Like Sunnyside, TUSD scored its own tests in the past, and students would be classified by their English skills within the first month of school, Amanti said. But TUSD didn't begin to receive AZELLA scores until January, and letters of notifications didn't go out until February, she said.

New students who were tested remained in English immersion classrooms until they were designated otherwise.

The Flowing Wells School District, whose student population is a tenth the size of TUSD's, also experienced delays. Flowing Wells has 600 ELL students out of a student body of 6,000, said Associate Superintendent David Baker.

Before the state required tests to be scored out of state, students would be designated by late August, Baker said, but this year, results were not available until mid-October.

"There's a turnaround time that's obviously longer," he said. "In the past, we'd have results at the end of the day."

At Sunnyside and Flowing Wells, the problem is most apparent for students transitioning from elementary to middle school or middle to high school.

"The place it caused the most disruption was at junior high and high school, where student schedules are built upon these results," Baker said.

The new business for Harcourt amounts to nearly twice as much money from Arizona.

Last year, according to state records, Harcourt received approximately $1.8 million for scoring tests for school districts or charter schools that requested the service, as well as for providing the test students took and converting raw data.

At a cost of $14.50 per student, Harcourt took in about $3 million for fiscal year 2007 for scoring the tests and mailing them to each school in Arizona.

But without the test scores, there's not much that can be done, school officials said.

● Contact reporter George B. Sánchez at 573-4195 or at gsanchez@azstarnet.com