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State, federal government wrestle over testing for students learning English

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, left, and Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, meet with children before a news conference at a Miami school in August. Scott and Carvalho are asking the U.S. Department of Education not to hold Florida schools and teachers accountable for English language learners until after two years of instruction
Published Oct. 19, 2014

In just four days last week, 10 new families enrolled their children at Leto High School, in Hillsborough County's heavily Hispanic Town 'N Country community.

Most of the teens had limited English skills. They spoke Spanish.

That put them in good company: One in four Leto students is an English language learner, often referred to as ELL's. But the influx concerned assistant principal Hilda Genco, who knows state and federal testing rules don't give English learners much leeway.

"Students who are not proficient in English and don't have the fluency will be adversely affected by all the testing," Genco said. "They don't have all the skills to understand the higher order questions."

The school provides tutoring, practice materials and other help. But it doesn't overcome the reality for these students.

"Some of them get a little bit frustrated that you are testing them on something they don't understand," Genco said.

Florida law gives ELL students two years in language programs before counting their results for the high stakes attached to state testing.

But the U.S. Department of Education is pressing the state to include the students' scores immediately in accountability measures. It has threatened to end Florida's waiver from several federal education mandates if the state doesn't fall in line.

State leaders, in response, have pledged legal action to protect Florida's ELL model, which serves more than a quarter-million children. Of that number, more than 33,000 live in the Tampa Bay area.

"We're sticking to our law," said state Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations subcommittee. "That 14- or 15-year-old might be brilliant, but in Creole."

On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott formally asked federal officials to hold a hearing on the issue. He said Florida is a national leader in educating ELL students, "and our local education experts know far better than the federal government what is right for Florida's students."

Activists see opportunity in the discord. They have begun pushing state lawmakers to go further than the two-year period the law gives ELL students to acclimate before their tests actually count.

"A two-year exception is a limited and partial solution," said Rosa Castro-Feinberg, a retired Miami-Dade School Board member and veteran ELL educator.

It's limited, she said, because it grants students only two years to accomplish something that, according to most research, requires five to seven years. And it's partial because it does little to ensure test results actually reflect ELL students' knowledge.

"So it strikes me as peculiar that we are spending all this energy on a two-year exception, and have yet to present recommendations (to federal officials) that would solve the issue longer term," Castro-Feinberg said.

Those recommendations exist. The State Board of Education authorized a task force in 2012 to propose ways to ensure accurate and fair measurement of ELL students' growth and achievement.

They include:

• Weighting test scores for ELL students so their results won't hurt school grades;

• Holding schools accountable by measuring the students' growth in English proficiency, and using the information to help determine school grades;

• Tracking students in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs, known as ESOL, for as long as they are in Florida schools. That would yield a fuller picture of their performance and the effectiveness of ELL services.

Castro-Feinberg argues these ideas would provide the state with needed data while treating students and schools more fairly.

"Right now, in most schools, the ESOL student is like in the stocks," she said. "He's shamed. He's found guilty of being responsible for bringing down the school grade. It's inevitable."

Gerard Robinson, Florida's education commissioner at the time of the task force, did not adopt these ideas. And they have gained no traction since.

But that could be changing.

Lydia Medrano, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said her group and other organizations are drafting a bill incorporating the concepts into law. And they're finding a receptive audience.

Fresen, the Miami lawmaker, said he liked the idea of gathering long-range data on ELL student performance.

State Rep. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who serves on several education committees, said he wanted to be careful not to run afoul of people who oppose collecting student information. At the same time, he said he was open to improving Florida's laws while fighting the federal restrictions.

"We ought to be testing on material," said Diaz, also a school administrator. "We already know they don't speak English well. … We have to have some common sense."

Medrano, a Tampa sociologist, said the state's focus on the federal dispute over ELL accountability, plus heightened attention to testing generally, should help generate a positive resolution.

"This is something that needed to be taken care of last year, not this year," she said. "This is an urgent matter."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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