Suit seeks to let kids take tests in native languages
Ventura County Star
April 8, 2005
Rio teacher joins push for change in state regulations
By Erinn Hutkin,

He's watched kids burst into tears, or feel like someone is picking on them.

Denis O'Leary teaches in the Rio School District. His classrooms are filled mostly with Hispanic students still mastering the language. Yet when they take tests the state uses to gauge if a school is failing, all the questions are in English.

So each year, O'Leary sees smart kids think they tested well, only to learn they did not.

Each year, students ask if they can test in Spanish so they know the answers.

"As a teacher, what do you say?" O'Leary asked. "It's very depressing."

O'Leary is joining a lawsuit against the state asking for English-learning students to be tested in their native language under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The act requires students in grades 2 to 11 to be tested annually in reading and math. In California, where one-quarter of students, 1.6 million, are learning the language, all kids are tested in English.

More than a dozen states, including Texas, already test students in their primary language.

Supporters say the suit would better measure students' knowledge and stop schools from being labeled low-performing. No Child Left Behind requires the number of U.S. students who test "proficient" to rise each year, reaching 100 percent by 2014.

Schools that do not meet yearly test goals face sanctions that could lead to being shut down or taken over by the state. Forty-one Ventura County schools and one district, Oxnard Union, are on the low-performing list. Many are there because not enough English learners or special-education students passed tests.

The suit, which O'Leary expects to be filed within a month, comes from the Coachella Valley Unified School District. A Thursday press conference announced the education civil rights group Californians Together and the California Association for Bilingual Education will join the litigation and have retained counsel.

English still important

Some local educators applaud testing students in their native language, namely Spanish. But others caution if testing changes, emphasis must still be placed on learning English.

"I truly believe they have to learn English," said Sylvia Spencer, a third-grade teacher at Oxnard's McKinna School. "(But) we would definitely see test scores go up. ... It's like they're at a disadvantage now."

County Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis said history indicates the litigation will succeed. He suggested students could be quizzed in Spanish until they score high enough on the California English Language Development Test.

"If you want to get a reliable score, you need to do it in a language they understand," he said.

Testing dilemma

Yet Rick Miller, spokesman for the California Department of Education, said tests are given in only one language because it's impossible to test knowledge of some subjects -- such as English -- in Spanish.

He said even if the suit succeeds, No Child Left Behind says non-English tests can be offered for only two years.

"The goal of our education system is learning English," he said. "We believe the system is in place to do that."

Oxnard teacher Joe Murphy says he sees frustration from students learning English when they take state tests.

He sees some look for answers around the room, or look for a friend who normally translates for them, knowing their crutch is gone.

Some simply give up and fill in answer bubbles, taking 10 minutes to finish a test that is two hours long.

'Against all education logic'

"I cheer the lawsuit on," said Murphy, who recalls a year when eight languages were spoken in his Fremont Intermediate School classroom. "Not all kids learn at the same rate or the same time. ... Making this test everybody has to pass goes against all the education logic I've ever been taught."

Moorpark teacher Leti Lozano said she believes tests can be overwhelming for children learning English. She tries to make the tests low-pressure. She passes out special pencils, "smart pencils" she calls them. She has older students, who are classroom buddies, leave encouraging notes and snacks on her kids' desks.

"You get to take a test all second-graders get to take," she tells them. "We just want to see how much you've learned."

Meanwhile, Murphy feels tests in Spanish would give kids an opportunity to show their knowledge.

"They might as well be giving the test in Chinese, because they don't stand a chance," he said. "It (the lawsuit) should have happened a long time ago."

-- Staff writer Jean Cowden Moore contributed to this report.