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N.Y.C. To Stop Proficiency Testing of All Hispanics

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The New York City board of education voted last week to stop its long-standing and often-criticized practice of automatically testing all students with Hispanic surnames for their English proficiency. Those tests are used to assign students to bilingual-education programs.

The seven-member board voted unanimously to halt the practice on a one-year, trial basis starting in the fall. The change is part of a larger review of how students are identified as having limited English proficiency and a need for bilingual or English-as-a-second-language programs in the city schools.

Nearly 18 percent of New York City's roughly 1 million public school students are classified as limited-English-proficient. Nationwide, the city ranks second behind Los Angeles with the most LEP students.

In a Feb. 13 memorandum to the school board, Chancellor Rudy F. Crew said the proposed change came in response to complaints by educators and Hispanic parents. Some have called the testing process discriminatory, noting that other ethnic groups have not been automatically subject to the test. Others have argued that the practice leads to some students being unnecessarily placed in bilingual education, where students are taught for part of the day in their native language.

A group of Hispanic parents from Brooklyn filed a lawsuit last fall against the state charging that their children were allowed to stay in bilingual education too long. While the suit did not directly challenge the way students are assigned to the programs, many of the parents criticized the process. A state judge in January dismissed the case, but the parents say they will appeal. (See Education Week, Feb. 28, 1996.)

Time To Revisit Policy

The Hispanic-surname policy for English-proficiency testing grew out of a 1974 consent decree that settled a suit filed by Aspira, a national Hispanic advocacy group based in Washington. Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, the executive director of Aspira's New York City office, said last week that the group has been talking with city officials about ways to improve bilingual education, including the way LEP students are identified.

"This policy [originally] was viewed as a safeguard," Ms. Cortes-Vazquez said. "But when you have a document that's more than 20 years old, you want to revisit it."

Mr. Crew, in a statement issued after last week's vote, said: "This change is the product of considerable discussion and collaboration between the school system and Aspira."

The parents of every new student in the New York City schools must fill out a home-language survey. If a parent indicates that a language other than English is spoken at home, the child takes the Language Assessment Battery, which tests English proficiency. If the child falls below a certain score, he is eligible for bilingual or ESL services. But students with Spanish surnames are given the test regardless of how their parents answer the survey.

Some parents and educators have criticized the language survey and the test for being imprecise measures of a student's language needs and his ability to learn in English.

The city is working with state education officials to refine the language survey and could have new forms by fall, said Josh Plaut, a board of education spokesman.

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