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Their fellow students struggle with English, so they wrote a bill

The legislation would ease testing requirements for high school students still learning the language. And Florida lawmakers from both major parties are sponsoring it.

SEFFNER — Armwood High School senior Maria Medina knows how tough it can be to learn English.

Spanish was her first language, and Medina acknowledged she sometimes still misunderstands portions of her lessons, despite having completed the English learners program years ago.

So imagine a teen moving to Florida from another country, knowing almost no English and trying to survive high school, she says — not to mention the state’s 10th-grade English-language arts exam that’s required for graduation. Studies show it takes at least five years to gain academic, as opposed to conversational, language skills.

“A test isn’t just about being able to speak a language. It’s comprehension,” Medina said. “Math is universal. Science is universal. English isn’t."

LISTEN: Armwood High civics teacher Tony Pirotta talks about his students’ bill-drafting effort on the Gradebook podcast.

That’s why she and several Armwood classmates are asking state lawmakers to exempt high school students still learning English from the 10th-grade testing requirement. It’s the latest in a string of proposals aimed at creating ways to fairly determine whether students are learning their material, rather than whether they are fluent in English.

A year ago, some state lawmakers proposed bills to allow students to take exams in their native languages. Those measures went nowhere.

The east Hillsborough students won’t let that deter them.

“We all believe that every student deserves an equal opportunity,” said senior Haley Manigold, one of the leaders of Armwood’s Ought To Be a Law club. “If you take a test and you can’t understand it, then the test is not effectively showing what you know.”

They’re hoping their goal can become reality. If history serves as a guide, they have a decent chance.

With the help of civics teacher Tony Pirotta, their club sponsor, the teens have drafted a bill and found sponsors in both the House and Senate. Pirotta worked with the countywide Ought To Be a Law competition begun about 15 years ago by former Rep. Kevin Ambler of Lutz to encourage students to propose legislation. Though the competition faded away after Ambler left office, Pirotta kept it going at Armwood.

His past students have successfully pushed through bills relating to the rights of homeless youth and penalties for educators found guilty of sexual misconduct with students, among other ideas. The latest proposal, relating to the English language learners, has been two years in the making.

“This piece of legislation is just amazing,” state Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat, told club members during a recent afternoon meeting, where she offered the teens advice on how to lobby her colleagues. “Hopefully, we can get some momentum.”

Valdes, a former Hillsborough County School Board chairwoman, is sponsoring the bill in the House. She encouraged the students to send their research and data to committee members, with information tailored so lawmakers can see the impact of the proposed change on their own communities.

Trying to provide for native-language exams is “not even part of the conversation,” Valdes said, but her colleagues might sympathize with their constituents who struggle with the tests not because of their lack of knowledge but because of their language limitations.

“This one test can control the rest of your life,” said Valdes, who offered some optimism that the bill (HB 143 / SB 376) could make it to the House floor in 2020.

Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who previously served as his chamber’s president, is sponsoring the Senate version. He said the bill makes sense philosophically.

“The testing system we’ve developed in Florida is difficult to apply to every student population fairly,” Lee said. Kids still learning English "are a great example of that.”

State Sen. Tom Lee says the bill on English-language learners will be a heavy lift, but worth the effort. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
State Sen. Tom Lee says the bill on English-language learners will be a heavy lift, but worth the effort. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

He suggested the amount of required testing needs to shrink, and the uses of their results should be scaled back.

But in a Legislature that can appear a “wholly owned subsidiary” of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation, which firmly supports testing-based accountability, the bill is a “pretty heavy lift,” Lee said. Still, he added, it’s worth the effort.

Pirotta recommended the students begin preparing for questions that could arise during committee meetings, with an ear for the most potentially controversial ones. He listed a couple of them, such as whether the bill would create something new, and, why the state should do something special for one group of students.

He also asked the students how they planned to frame the bill. They stressed that, in their minds, it’s an education bill aimed at creating equity.

“We’re going to have to do everything in our power to avoid the ‘I’ word,” Pirotta said, referring to “immigration,” the hotly contested issue that has pitted Republicans against Democrats for years. “This is an education bill. These students are in our schools, and we have to teach them.”

The group pointed to a senior who recently enrolled in Armwood after migrating from Cuba. She took engineering-level math and science in Cuba, and finds her current math classes to be a “joke.”

But trying to understand English well enough to pass the English-language arts and U.S. history end-of-course exams — both requirements for a Florida high school diploma — is proving a big hurdle. The student doesn’t have the language skills, or the testing strategies that children who grew up here have been taught since kindergarten.

Maybe the lawmakers just don’t know about this, said club member Zachary Mills, also a senior. Such stories happen too often, he said, and if people understood, maybe they’d see, too, why there ought to be such a law.

“There is a lot of injustice to people who aren’t ‘average,’” Mills said. “I want to be part of the group that makes things better.”

The House bill has been referred to three committees. Its Senate companion has not yet been sent to any.