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
So each year, O'Leary sees smart kids think they tested well, only to learn they
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
"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.