Associated Press
March 19, 2005
                            by Mike Schneider

Kissimmee -- The clock began ticking for 16-year-old Leyna Rosa Ibanos when she arrived from Puerto Rico seven years ago knowing hardly any English.

She had to learn enough of the language before her sophomore year when she would take the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, the statewide standardized test that every student must pass before graduating.

Even though she gets As and Bs in her classes, she has struggled so far with the FCAT, passing the math part but twice failing the reading section. She plans to take the reading section for a third time this month.

"I'm very worried because I want to pass it now because in 12th grade I want to think about college," says Ibanos, a junior at Poinciana High School who in an interview is more comfortable speaking Spanish than English.

Thousands of non-English-speaking students who arrive in Florida's schools each year find themselves in the same boat. They may do well enough to pass their classes with help from English-proficiency programs but then fail the mandatory high-stakes testing that has been a centerpiece of Gov. Jeb Bush's educational changes.

The test is administered in grades 4, 8, and 10 but passing the 10th-grade test is required to get a diploma. Students have six chances to take the test and they can come back for another year if they fail it in their senior year.

Repeated failure can delay going to a university and fulfilling the dreams of success that motivated many families to move to the United States in the first place. Last year, nearly 14,000 high school seniors didn't pass the critical exam; of that number, roughly a third were classified as students with limited English proficiency.

The problems facing these students motivated state Rep. John Quinones to introduce a bill this legislative session that would require Florida's Department of Education to study whether there are standardized tests in other languages that could be used in place of the FCAT. The alternative tests would be for students who have been enrolled in ESL programs for less than three years and who have failed to pass the grade 10 FCAT test by their senior year.

But the Florida Department of Education won't support Quinones' bill since a firm grasp of English is one of the standards for earning a high-school diploma.

"We have been hesitant to go down the road of other languages since our state's standards require proficiency in English," says Education Commissioner John Winn. "There is also the practical issue of how many languages do you support?"

Many non-English-speaking parents also are hindered in their ability to help their children study for the FCATs, the way English-speaking parents can.

"Personally, I have very good knowledge of grammar in my own language but I don't have it in English," says Gloria Mejia, who moved to Osceola County from Colombia five years ago with her daughter and son. "Any help I can give my son would only cause him confusion."

Ibanos, who wears a sly smile when she talks, says that during the two previous times she took the FCAT, her mind wandered as one English paragraph dragged on after the other. She planned to concentrate harder the next time she took the test.

"I want to pass it," she says. "I'm positive that I will do the best that I can."