Educators Wary of Test Rules For LEP Pupils

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Texas educators welcome some of the legislature's new efforts to include limited-English-proficient students in state assessments, but they disapprove of others.

District coordinators of bilingual or English-as-a-second-language programs last week praised the new Reading Proficiency Test in English developed by the state and given the first time this spring to all LEP students in grades 3 through 12. But some dislike the rules implemented this year that require cutbacks in exemptions for LEP students from the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. And other bilingual educators say they are wary of further restrictions on such exemptions that are scheduled to go into effect during next year's testing season.

Legislators passed the changes in testing last year, and the state board of education put them into effect in December.

Texas educators say that while they support increased inclusion of LEP students in state tests, they object to requirements that might force them to give a test to a student who isn't academically prepared to take it.

"It's tough on children, their coming here," said Jennifer M. Alexander, the director of immigrant programs for the 210,000-student Houston school district. "Sometimes, they're not ready to talk for two or three months,'' she said, let alone take an academic test.

At what point students learning English should be prepared to take state tests and have their scores included in their state's rating system for schools is a matter of debate not only in Texas, but also in other states with sizable enrollments of students whose first language is not English.

State policies range from that of California, where no LEP students are exempted from state tests, to that of Hawaii, where exemption from tests depends on a student's English proficiency and not at all on how long he or she has attended U.S. schools.

Besides the reading test, new this year to Texas schools was a state stipulation that no student born in the United States could be exempted from the TAAS., which is given annually to students in grades 3 through 8 and in grade 10. Last year, 69 percent of the state's 243,000 LEP students in the grades tested took the TAAS.. Of the 168,000 LEP students who took the test, 37,000 took it in Spanish, which isn't considered an exemption. The Spanish test is available for grades 3-6.

The state estimates that 10 percent to 25 percent of its LEP students are native-born.

Traditionally, an English-language learner in Texas could be exempted from the test for three years after entering U.S. schools, with the count of years starting with the 3rd grade. The state doesn't have data on how many students have taken the maximum exemption time.

All educators interviewed for this story said they believe a law reducing exemptions that goes into effect as early as next year is not reasonable. Then, only immigrant children who have been in American schools for 12 months or less will be exempted from the TAAS.

Avoiding a 'Black Hole'

But changes in the requirements for testing LEP children are necessary because schools don't feel obligated to teach such children unless they are required to test them, said Sen. Domingo A. Garcia, the Democrat who sponsored the legislation that brought about the changes.

"The main impetus was the high number of children who were being exempted at schools throughout Texas, creating high test scores and status for schools, while the LEP students fell into a black hole, and never were seen again until the dropout rates were reported," he said.

"If you don't test them, you have the tendency not to teach them," agreed Robert Mendro, the chief evaluation officer for the 160,000-student Dallas public schools.

The Dallas district this year voluntarily imposed an exemption policy that was stricter than what the state required.Instead of allowing LEP students three years of exemption starting in the 3rd grade, when the TAAS is first given, Dallas starts counting the three years with kindergarten. The policy increased the number of LEP students taking the TAAS this year by an estimated 4,100 over last year.

As a result, Mr. Mendro said, "we're going to have 15 to 20 schools that are low-performing [in the state ratings], as opposed to nine last year."

The Houston system has put into effect an even more stringent exemption policy. Starting last year, it permitted exemptions on the TAAS only for LEP students who had been in the school system for one year or less, with a provision for schools to extend the exemption to two years in individual cases. Both the Dallas and Houston districts are opposed to decreasing the time limit on exemptions universally to one year.

Some educators in other school systems don't think the time allowed for exemptions of LEP students from the state assessment should be changed. This is the view of Romeo J. Romero, the coordinator of the bilingual and ESL education program for the 24,000-student Laredo school district. He also argued that the state's decision to distinguish between native-born and immigrant children this year is a mistake because a native-born child may have lived in a Spanish-speaking environment similar to that of an immigrant child.

Concepción D. Guerra, the director of bilingual and ESL programs for the 21,000-student Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district, said she'd like the amount of time for exemptions to stay at three years. The test, which is not part of the state's system for rating schools, is intended as a diagnostic or placement tool. But the TAAS. is the kind of test that students either pass or fail, Ms. Guerra said, and she worries about the negative impact that failing the test may have on a child who hasn't had a chance to learn the material it covers.

Vol. 19, Issue 33, Pages 28, 30

Published in Print: April 26, 2000, as Educators Wary of Test Rules For LEP Pupils
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Texas estimates 75 percent to 90 percent of its LEP students are native-born; this estimate was incorrectly stated in the article. Also, Rep. Domingo A. Garcia was incorrectly referred to; he is a Texas state representative.

Clarification: The incorrect impression may have been given that results from the new Reading Proficiency Test in English for LEP students in Texas are part of the state's system for rating schools. The scores from LEP students who take the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, however, are included in the rating system.

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