Give Florida tests in languages beyond English, state lawmakers say

Assess their knowledge, not their language skills, they argue.
Annette Taddeo [Miami Herald file photo]
Annette Taddeo [Miami Herald file photo]
Published March 1, 2019

A pair of Miami Democrats have filed companion bills (SB 1590 / HB 1213) that would allow Florida students still learning English to take state tests in their native language.

If approved, the measure would accomplish what many civil rights advocates tried unsuccessfully to get the state Department of Education to do as part of its federal Every Student Succeeds Act plan. State officials refused to include a provision to offer the tests in languages other than English, despite federal guidelines that urge states to make “every effort” to do so.

“I think it’s ridiculous that a place like Florida, where we have so many students in this circumstance (learning English), they’re not allowed to take their tests at least in Spanish or Creole, in their native language,” said state Sen. Annette Taddeo, the Senate sponsor.

“How do you know they’re not super smart?”

Taddeo mentioned that she moved to the United States at age 17 knowing little English. When she took the ACT exam, she said, she scored an 8.

“If I would have been tested in math and science in my native language, people would have seen I wasn’t just this person who could only spell my name,” she said.

She noted that the state provides voting ballots in different languages, and it has translators available for court proceedings. That knocks down the state DOE argument that it does not have to provide language accommodations so students can demonstrate their knowledge rather than their English ability, Taddeo suggested.

The bill by Taddeo and House sponsor Rep. Cindy Polo is not the only push to give students learning English some added support.

Sen. Victor Torres Jr., an Orlando Democrat, has submitted a separate bill that would require the state to determine “concordant” passing scores that Spanish speakers could attain on the Prueba de Aptitud Académica and Pruebas de Evaluación y Admisión Universitaria exams, to substitute for the state’s 10th grade language arts test and the Algebra I end-of-course exam.

Students must pass those two state tests to earn a high school diploma, and already have the option of substituting an approved ACT or SAT score.

These bills are just two of what are expected to be many to address the issue of Florida’s large immigrant population that has not mastered English. Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a longtime leader in the push for tests in multiple languages, recalled that a few years ago, Sen. David Simmons attempted to pass similar legislation after meeting a teen from China who had mastered his courses but could not pass the state exams.

“I’m hoping the bills this year fare better, because the needs are better understood of this 10 percent of our student population,” said Castro-Feinberg, a former Miami-Dade County School Board member. “Gov. DeSantis and his administration have an opportunity to rectify errors made by the previous administration.”

She said Unidos US and LULAC Florida support the proposals.

The bills have not been sent to any committees. Session begins Tuesday.